There’s a phrase going around that you should “buy experiences, not things.” People, it’s claimed, think that having a lot of stuff is what’s going to make them happy. But they’re mistaken. A Lamborghini may be fun to drive for the first days or weeks, but pretty soon it fades into the background of your life. The drive to accumulate stuff is an evolutionary relic that no longer fits our modern situation. Better to embrace minimalism and focus on immaterial things like experiences, whose memories you can treasure forever.
While I appreciate the Stoic-style appraisal of what really brings happiness, economically, this analysis seems precisely backward. It amounts to saying that in an age of industrialization and globalism, when material goods are cheaper than ever, we should avoid partaking of this abundance. Instead, we should consume services afflicted by Baumol’s cost disease, taking long vacations and getting expensive haircuts which are just as hard to produce as ever.
Put that way, the focus on minimalism sounds like a new form of conspicuous consumption. Now that even the poor can afford material goods, let’s denigrate goods while highlighting the remaining luxuries that only the affluent can enjoy and show off to their friends.
But I think there’s more to it than that. The advocates of the new minimalism are, by and large, urban dwellers, tied to stratospheric real estate markets in prime locations. (Prime locations are, tellingly, never considered material “things” to be shunned.) In a downtown studio, one simply cannot afford to have that many material goods. As the dream of homeownership fades further away, it makes total sense to economize by buying a few, high-quality items and just accept the loss of capability from not having, say, a well stocked toolshed. But what cities can provide are experiences, both new and interesting events in town and opportunities for international travel. So “buy experiences, not things” is less a bold new philosophy than a mere rationalization of life choices that people have already been forced to adopt.
But what this rationalization ignores is the extent to which tools and possessions enable new experiences. A well-appointed kitchen allows you to cook healthy meals for yourself rather than ordering delivery night after night. A toolbox lets you fix things around the house and in the process learn to appreciate how our modern world was made. A spacious living room makes it easy for your friends to come over and catch up on one another’s lives. A hunting rifle can produce not only meat, but also camaraderie and a sense of connection with the natural world of our forefathers. In truth, there is no real boundary between things and experiences. There are experience-like things; like a basement carpentry workshop or a fine collection of loose-leaf tea. And there are thing-like experiences, like an Instagrammable vacation that collects a bunch of likes but soon fades from memory.
Indeed, much of what is wrong with our modern lifestyles is, in a sense, a matter of overconsuming experiences. The sectors of the economy that are becoming more expensive every year – which are preventing people from building durable wealth – include real estate and education, both items that are sold by the promise of irreplaceable “experiences.” Healthcare, too, is a modern experience that is best avoided. As a percent of GDP, these are the growing expenditures that are eating up people’s wallets, not durable goods. If we really want to live a minimalist life, then forget about throwing away boxes of stuff, and focus on downsizing education, real estate, and healthcare.
Nobody seems to have a complete program to escape the experience economy rat race, but if there is a solution, it may very well involve making good use of the material abundance we now have. If you have a space for entertaining and are intentional about building up a web of friendships, you can be independent from the social pull of expensive cities. Build that network to the point of introducing people to jobs, and you can take the edge off, a little, of the pressure for credentialism. If you have a functional kitchen and a home gym (or tennis rackets or cross-country skis), you might reduce your dependence on healthcare.
So I would, if anything, reverse the maxim: “Buy things, not experiences!” Sure, the Lambo might still be a waste of money, but thoughtfully chosen material goods can enable new activities can enrich your life, extend your capabilities, and deepen your understanding of the world. And if ever more affordable material goods can build up a measure of independence from the ever more expensive services that actually consume people’s income, that would be a trade to be proud of.