How Spending Less Made Me Happier

By Oleg Mokhov on 30 March 2010 (Updated 27 August 2010) 15 comments

Contrary to popular belief, you don't need money to be happy. In fact, spending less can actually make you happier.

"Say what? Are you crazy? I need money to buy fancy toys, flashy cars, get into exclusive clubs, fine restaurants, big shows. Y'know, the fun stuff."

It might seem counterintuitive, but you can become happier by not spending money on those things, or whatever else. And that's not just some crazy frugal talking, either.

How? It's simple: When you don't spend, your focus shifts to finding experiences. Great experiences stay with you. And those experiences are what last and will make you truly happy, not possessions or the next fleeting entertainment rush that come and go.

Think about it: What has really made you happy in your life so far? Some gadget you bought a while back, or...

  • A beautiful walk with someone you love?
  • Sitting in front of a fire with your friends?
  • Playing sports with great people on a sunny afternoon?
  • Hiking and enjoying nature?
  • Holidays with your family?
  • Spending the day making music or painting?

Sure, that fancy gadget gave you a rush when you first held it in your hands, but you got pretty bored of or used to it soon enough, right? But those experiences you had — the ones that didn't cost a dime — stay with you forever.

Only Spend Enough to Create Your Experiences

Now, of course you want to spend on some things (besides the necessities like groceries and rent) — restaurant, movie, trips, ski lift tickets, music recording equipment, paint supplies, whatever. But the point here is to only spend as much as you need to create your experiences, rather than make the spending itself your method of finding happiness.

New gadgets and sensation-stimulating nights out are fleeting and constantly force you to spend, spend, spend. But experiences don't cost anything and stay with you long after they're done. So, buy those nice athletic shoes, but then use them for your runs and hikes and do more of those activities that will ultimately make you very happy, rather than going back to the store to buy more shoes.

How to Make the Shift From Buying to Experiencing

OK, so don't spend to be happy and instead start seeking more experiences. Sounds nice, but easier said than done. How the heck do you make the shift from buying to experiencing? Some practical advice, please:

  • Look at what you regularly spend on that's not necessities like groceries and rent: going out, movies, clothes, tools, etc.
     
  • Decide why, specifically, you regularly spend on those things. Why/how do they make you happy?
     
  • Think of how you could use your existing things to create new experiences that you'd enjoy but haven't been doing much. Put your existing video collection to use by throwing movie nights with your friends, for example.
     
  • Make a list of free things you currently do that you enjoy, like hiking, music-making, painting, running, sports, etc.
     
  • Start doing more of those things while consciously cutting back on your spending.
     
  • The more experiences you start having, the more you'll enjoy yourself, and the less you'll have a desire to spend.

You could say steps like these are common sense, and you'd be right. There are no secret tricks or tactics here. Pretty simple stuff. It's all about becoming conscious of your spending habits and cutting back on the nonessentials. Then, replacing the time otherwise spent on buying with pursuing experiences that really make you happy.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW

Rinse and repeat, and before long you'll have less and less of a desire to go out and buy stuff. You'll be too busy loving the experience you're having out in nature, creatively creating, spending amazing time with great people, or whatever else. These experiences don't cost anything, will make you ridiculously happy, and will stay with you long after they're done.

And ya know what's really neat? You can't buy experiences like that, even if you wanted to.

How Spending Less Made Me Happier

I used to spend constantly on new music-making gear. Instead of focusing wholly on improving my craft, I was researching what piece of equipment would let me "finally get that effect I was going for." Or which piece of DAW (digital audio workstation) software would be the ideal interface for my workflow. I mean, I was obviously spending time making electronic dance tunes: Why else would I need to buy new gear? But I was always left with that feeling of wanting more. Once the shine of the new piece of gear wore off, I wanted a new one.

Then one day I read an inspiring interview with an electronic artist, who mentioned that by purposefully limiting himself with equipment and not getting anything new, he was able to focus completely on making music. Not only did his skill level skyrocket, but he was enjoying the art of music a lot more. It wasn't about attaining a piece of gear but the sheer joy of creating beautiful sounds out of nothing.

In other words, by spending less, he became happier.

I noticed that I was falling under the same gear-lust trap that the artist used to be in. So I pushed myself to do the same. I sold most of my gear that I rarely used, settled on just one piece of software (Ableton Live), and forced myself not to look at music gear websites and magazines.

It was uncomfortable at first, but I quickly got used to not thinking about buying new equipment. My attention shifted to all about the art of music-making. And, just like that artist, I found myself getting better a lot faster — not to mention enjoying music-making a lot more. It was a relief not having to think about the latest plugin or effect. All my attention was on the music-making experience.

By spending less, I became happier.

Today, I don't think about spending on music-making stuff at all. I'm lost in the glorious, rewarding experience of making electronic music with the tools that I already have, and I'm so much happier as a result.

Spend Less to Become Happier

Shift your focus from spending to experiencing, and you can become happier. Rather than constantly pursuing new possessions that are fleeting, you'll enjoy experiences that bring you tons of happiness, stay with you long after they're gone, and don't cost you a dime.

Oh, and your bank account will say thank you, too.

Oleg Mokhov is the world's most mobile electronic musician and co-founder of the premium royalty free music store Soundtrackster. Read more by Oleg at his website:

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Guest's picture
Kim

You know what this reminded me of? The guy who shows up on the ski slopes w/ all the gear, Spider jacket, etc., and can barely get down a green (I'm looking at you, NYC'ers who invade the Vermont slopes). And the best guy on the slopes? The one in the red one-piece (thankfully not skin tight) purchased in the 70s.

Guest's picture
Olivia

I really like the idea behind this article. It is true--you do not need to have a ton of money to be happy. I have been reminded of this lately now that my husband and I are expecting our first child. So many people around me are waiting to have children for no other reason than they want to have the money to afford every single luxury they can get for that child. These couples want children but hold off because they cannot afford the luxuries. These couples have plenty of money to provide the necessities of life and many "fun" items for a child. However, they get caught up the luxuries they would not have instead of thinking about the experiences they would have. I place more value on the experiences I would have. Sure, I would like to afford luxuries some day, but I am not going to stress out about them in the meantime. Thanks for the post!

Guest's picture
dahlia

Well obviously you're preaching to the choir here, this self-congratulatory post isn't telling this group anything we don't already know and believe. Therefore, it kind of wastes the space.

Guest's picture

Good post for himself learned many new things, thanks

Guest's picture
Guest

Volunteering at my nearby pet "orphanage" makes me happier than any stuff or fancy meals. It costs me nothing but time (unless I want to buy toys for the dogs). Try it. It's a win/win.

Guest's picture
Q

I disagree with Dahlia in part. Yes, you're preaching to the choir, but quite frankly, posts like this are why we all click on this blog. Did I learn something new? No, but I took a moment, read about the author's experience and reflected upon my own. Maybe it's all a bit self-congratulatory, but part of learning to love living with less is learning to stop and congratulate yourself for your accomplishments.

Also, this post provides a forum for others to chime in with their own experiences. The skiing example was terrific!

My husband and I stopped eating out and remodeled our kitchen ourselves. The hours of work on that kitchen have been some of the happiest of our marriage. I am amazed at what we turned out to be capable of. Now we come home and cook dinner together every night in this space we created. When we do dine out, it's a true occasion and very special.

Guest's picture
WR

Experiences make us happy, not stuff(great Article on CNN)

One of my favorite annual recurring expenditures is the
NPS pass . For $80.00 I have access and parking at all 400+ National Parks all over the country. These are the experiences my family talks about when we reminisce.

The things we have are so inconsequential to our happiness. In fact, I believe there is a tipping point where our things actually start to erode our happiness. Storage, upkeep and external expectation coalesce to to drive joy out of our life.

Go for the memorable experiences, they will last a lifetime.

-WR

Guest's picture
kt

if you look at things critically, there is actually very little that you need to survive and have a happy life. most of the crap we think we need is because of being slaves to all the advertising and the inacurate adverts that make as think that having that ipad will make life more fun and fuller. there is wisdom in knowing the difference between what you want what you really want and what you need

Guest's picture
J

This post reminds me of a TED presentation on the difference between experiences where you think you are having fun and experiences where you will remember having had fun.
"Daniel Kahneman: The riddle of experience vs. memory"
http://www.ted.com/talks/daniel_kahneman_the_riddle_of_experience_vs_mem...

One aspect of this difference was covered in the scientific study "You’re Having Fun When Time Flies: The Hedonic Consequences of Subjective Time Progression" led by Aaron M. Sackett. The title is a pretty good summary (the exception being that the effect was destroyed when subjects believed their sense of time was being manipulated externally).
http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2009/11/25/0956797609354832.full

@WR
Your CNN example wasn't too bad. But I have to say that science reporting in the popular media is, by and large, crap. Reporters often can't be bothered to explore (or their editors trim out) the nuanced positions and study limitations that scientific papers offer. Try to cite original sources when possible.

"The mediators of experiential purchases: Determining the impact of psychological needs satisfaction and social comparison" by Ryan Howell
http://bss.sfsu.edu/rhowell/Pubs%20-%20PDF/Howell_Hill_JPP_060309.pdf

Guest's picture
Kris

One thing I found when I had more disposable income is that I didn't really think about what I was buying. If I saw it and thought I had a need for it (someday), I bought it. Now that money is not so available, it forces me to really think about my priorities and focus on what I really need. For me, I think it is more that the end result of spending less is what makes me happy. Instead of going out to eat, I make dinner with my daughter at home, that kind of thing. Money can make things easier, but now that I think about it, the 'experience of life' can suffer. Does that make any sense?

Guest's picture
Guy G.

Hey,

I've really only started making positive gains in my finances in the last two years. The first two years of marriage was spent trying to buy the things we thought would make us even happier, but it really only put us in debt. Now, as we've finally learned some tips on budgeting and are implementing them, are we finding that we're enjoying life. We do things together that we did when we were broke college students. We cook together, walk, jog, and do other outdoor things together. We're having fun and I'm loving her more every day. And, we're saving money. I know that being relieved from the burden of debt has really helped things out as well. It was stressful for a while.

Cheers,

Guest's picture

Great post Oleg, I really got a lot out of it.

I especially liked your reference to sensation-stimulating nights out. I love to see a good movie but I find when I see one I want to see another and another and another...the movie is great on the night but even having recently seen Avatar in 3D...well actually, I'm over it already and can't imagine me thinking back to it as anything truly invigorating...I think I will remember the Jaffas more than the movie, lol! I can still enjoy a good film but I can see how I could easily spend spend spend when there are plenty of other alternative experiences to enjoy.

Thanks for the practical tips!

Guest's picture

I enjoyed reading this post and have linked to it on my blog, rosiegirldreams.com. The reference can be found at: http://rosiegirldreams.com/http:/rosiegirldreams.com/2010/6-sharing-satu.... Thanks!

Guest's picture

Very intriguing and a great way of thinking. Spending time with kids, other family, or good friends at home is such a relaxing and joyful experience. Take the money saved by doing these the things here in this article that is otherwise being spent on the quick thrills and invest it in your future. Maybe there is a class that will help you get that extra raise? Maybe your retirement account just needs some nurturing?

Guest's picture
Bianca

Great article Oleg! I agree whole heartedly :) hope all is well...