How to Spend Money to Increase Happiness

Do you know how to spend money to increase happiness? It’s well documented spending on experiences – not things – produces higher levels of happiness. Study after study demonstrates that the excitement of buying new things is short lived. Thankfully, there are ways to spend money to increase your happiness.

Think about the last material purchase you made. Was it a couch? Was it a computer? Was it a new car? Was it a cell phone? Was it jewelry? Was it clothes? 

How did you feel leading up to the purchase? 

How did you feel during the purchase? 

How did you feel after the purchase? 

How did you feel much later after the purchase? 

If you are like most people, you probably had a burst of excitement leading up to the purchase, a high during the purchase, a good feeling right after, and then the joy faded. If you think back on it now, you likely feel very little emotion towards it. 

Material Purchase in My Life

I’ll share an example from my own life. I purchased a townhome about a year ago after renting for about nine years. In those nine years, I moved six times. There was a span where I moved five times in five years. 

It would be an understatement to say I was ready for more permanent furniture. I had an uncomfortable ikea couch. I hated it, but it was small and fit in my last apartment where most couches would not fit. 

I was very excited to buy the perfect couch for my new space. I asked people what type of couch they liked, where they bought it, and how it was holding up. 

Leading up to the purchase, you can see my joy. 

My partner, Molly, and I went couch shopping. It was exhausting. We went to furniture store after furniture store. We sat on at least one hundred couches. 

Who likes couch shopping? 

When we finally found the one we liked, we were relieved. The measurements were perfect. We found it comfortable. Molly loved the color. 

We were happy during the purchase, but also exhausted. 

After the purchase, we were thankful to have a couch, but the happiness started to fade. 

Now, the couch is an object in our home. I feel nothing looking at it. Molly does get joy from the fact that it matches our table cloth, but for the most part, the happiness we experienced at the start is almost entirely gone. 

We sit on it every day. Out of most objects in the house, it is used more than others, and yet, it brings us little joy. It is not a part of our identity and when we talk about the couch, we talk more about the process of buying it than the actual couch. 

We laugh about the sales people we experienced and their different selling styles. We talk about how odd it is that we bought the exact same couch as my best friend. We think back to how hangry we became trying to go to just one more furniture store in hope of finding the perfect couch. 

Like most material purchases, we experienced:

  • Excitement leading up to the purchase, though short lived
  • Happiness during the purchase
  • Happiness started to fade after the purchase
  • No happiness much later 

Do you feel the same way about your purchases? 

Experiential Purchase in My Life

Comparing the couch purchase to an experiential purchase, we experienced something different. 

Over a year ago, we decided to go to Scotland. Molly had never been out of the country besides visiting Canada, and Scotland was at the top of her travel bucket list. 

Neist Point - our version of how to spend money to increase happiness
Neist Point – it felt like the edge of the world

We’ll examine the same questions as we did before. 

How did you feel leading up to the purchase? 

How did you feel during the purchase? 

How did you feel after the purchase? 

How did you feel much later after the purchase? 

Leading up to the purchase, we were extremely happy and stressed. We were leaving the day after Step 1 for Molly, a major medical school exam. 

I was also stressed about leaving because my dad has Stage IV lung cancer and had not been doing well. Plus, I always felt guilty leaving and worried about whether I would need to return mid-vacation to come home.

Overall though, we were looking forward to traveling. 

We started planning the trip before we bought anything. We needed to decide where to go, how much time to spend each place, and which methods of transportation to take. 

Once we decided on the framework for the trip, we purchased the flights. Pure joy. It was set. We were traveling. 

The pure joy did not stop there. Next, we were excited to decide where to stay and how many nights in each location. We started doing research independently and together. We found a hotel in Edinburgh. Check – another dose of happiness. 

We started lining up activities we could do while in Edinburgh. We found restaurants, whiskey tastings, walking tours, more restaurants, historical sites, museums, and more restaurants. Did I mention I like food? 

We found happiness with each new find. 

Next, we found a place to stay in the Isle of Skye. We enjoyed researching the different accommodations – AirBnB, hotels, and bed and breakfasts. We found an adorable place with a water view in Portree five minutes walking distance from the main part of town. 

The view from Portree.

We found happiness again. Each purchase represented a current and future pleasure. We anticipated the future happiness between the purchase and the experience. 

During each purchase, we felt great. We felt excited, happy, joyful, fortunate, and content. We felt that way after, too. 


Because we could look forward to what we purchased. We had weeks of thinking about axe throwing, beautiful walks in the Highlands, and the bonding we would experience while trying to navigate driving on the left side of the road. 

It’s been over a year since the trip. How do I feel now? 

I actually remember the trip with more joy than I had during it. The first half of the trip I was sick with a cold. Molly caught it the second half of the trip. 

Remember how I said my dad was not doing well? The day before we left, his oncologist told him he likely would not resume his cancer treatment. 

We had no idea what that meant for him. It weighed on me the entire trip. I enjoyed the trip, but my mind was elsewhere for most of it. I never fully unplugged and enjoyed the vacation. 

Even with that experience, I feel an immense amount of happiness looking back on the trip. It’s odd when I really think about it because I know how sad I felt during the trip. This article talks about how it can be negative at the time and positive later.

With a smile, I remember the axe throwing and how positive the instructor was, even when it was a terrible throw. I chuckle when I think about the car rental place telling us it was snowing in the Highlands and how terrifying it was driving through the snow in a two wheel drive car in what felt like the middle of nowhere.

I feel delighted when I think about the meals we had: Salmon Molly still raves about, fish fry we ran back to our AirBnB with in the rain, and desserts we ordered where they brought us the wrong thing and we spent the afternoon trying to determine if Scottish desserts have different names than in the United States.

I fondly recall the whiskey tastings, learning about the different regions, their associated flavors, and the take away packs we sampled with chocolate in our hotel the night before our flight home. 

I think back to the memories we created. And I get to do it any time; I have hundreds of photos I can access any time to feel happy. 

As I write this, there is a picture of us axe throwing on my desk. I am privileged to look at that photo every day and smile. And, I get to live those memories over for the rest of my life. 

Try doing that with a material purchase. It won’t happen. 

There are no memories or bonding experiences. There are no sights, smells, sounds, tastes, or touch to look back on with happiness. 

Inexpensive Experiences

I used these two examples because the cost between the couch and Scotland was similar. Was Scotland more expensive? Yes, but not by much because we went in the off season. 

And it’s clear Scotland brought more happiness long-term. 

I can use less expensive examples of how to spend money to increase happiness.

In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic made me evaluate my own spending again. March and April were filled with purchase after purchase. Some of it was a hoarding like mentality. Some of it was filling the rest of the house because we still had not fully settled into it. Some it was likely just me wanting control over something. I click buy, product arrives – at least most of the time.

The problem with any repeated purchase – material or experiential – is that it becomes normal and you adapt to it as the baseline. 

For me, I thought I loved eating at restaurants or getting take out, something I consider experiential. And, I still do love it, but I realized I became accustomed to it. Instead of eating out for most meals on weekends like I used to, I have been eating out once or twice on the weekend.


I enjoy it more now. I look forward to it. It’s back to being a treat. And, I am enjoying cooking more again. 

I reduced something I love doing, and I love it more now. 

It can also be as simple as drinking coffee or tea. Are you drinking 3-5 cups a day? Try cutting back one cup at a time until you get to 1-2 cups a day. You’ll look forward to it more. 

As companies get better at advertising, it will be more important than ever to be intentional with what you consume. Figure out what you truly love. Spend on it lavishly. Consumption itself is not a bad thing. Mindless consumption without purpose is. 

And, remember you don’t need to consume for happiness. 

As I look back on the last few months, I consumed a ton. I experienced very little happiness from it. 

I felt happiest doing simple things: walks with friends, picnics in the parks, and talking with my parents on their porch. It cost very little. The impact was huge. 

Each time, we expressed gratitude for each other. We said thank you and acknowledged how much it was needed to spend time together. 

With less opportunity to interact with others during the pandemic, I am remembering the simpler things. I don’t need to go to a restaurant to eat with someone to enjoy their company. I don’t need to spend money to increase happiness.

It reminds me of being a kid and how I could wander in the neighborhood because I couldn’t go anywhere else. Kids are phenomenal at creating experiences out of very little. Don’t believe it? Give a kid a stick, a cardboard box, or any other object you would not think twice about. Sit back and watch the magic. 

How to Apply in Your Life

I am not advocating to stop all spending or to only spend on experiences. We do need some amount of stuff and you can create experiences around stuff. Life should be enjoyed – both in materials and experience. 

What I am saying is to spend with intention. Not sure where to start? Start small. If you are the type of person who spends on material purchases, try shifting some of your spending to experiences. Studies say you will likely be happier.

If you feel you are constantly trying to find your next wonderful experience, try reducing how often you buy experiences. You’ll likely feel happier when you enjoy it again. 

The next time you buy something, think about these questions: 

  • How did you feel leading up to the purchase? 
  • How did you feel during the purchase? 
  • How did you feel after the purchase? 
  • How did you feel much later after the purchase? 

Try writing down your thoughts and revisit them later. What do you notice? Do you want to change your spending? How do you want to change your spending? How does it make you feel? 

Talk with someone about spending. How do they view spending? How do they spend money? How do they feel about their spending? 

I love learning about how people spend money and what brings them joy. I get ideas for my own life. They get ideas from me. We both see different ways of spending money and can use it how we best see fit. 

There is no perfect formula for spending. Talk about money with someone and see where it leads. 

Disclaimer: This article is for general information and educational purposes only and should not be considered investment, financial, legal, or tax advice. It is not a recommendation for purchase or sale of any security or investment advisory services. Please consult your own legal, financial, and other professionals to determine what may be appropriate for you. Opinions expressed are as of the date of publication, and such opinions are subject to change. Click for Full Disclaimer

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