Seth Barham Design
Minimal and effective design, inspired by culture.

spartan wanderer

Valuing Experiences Over Material Things

There’s nothing quite like that speedball shot of adrenaline you get from closing the door behind you and digging into your bags after a substantial shopping spree. Or coming home to that Amazon box on your doorstep and promptly ripping into it. You take out its contents for the first time, hold it in your hand…

Behold! This…thing!

It’s a powerful feeling that can stay with you for a few days. No wonder there are so many shopping addicts out there. But like any high, it doesn’t last forever and it doesn’t come free. The feeling will fade and the object itself will eventually degrade and break down. It’s all temporary.

Some things last longer than others, though. Ironically, those things with the most staying power aren’t exactly tangible. When I have a good long think about my life, it isn’t a slideshow of the things I own going through my head, it’s what I’ve done. Where I’ve been and what I’ve seen.

A wealth of experiences weighs down the scales much more easily than the pile of trinkets on the other end. I’m far from unique in this regard. It’s a generational thing. A whole new economy of experiences is rapidly emerging around millennials. Why?

1. Memories last longer

What’s the average life cycle of the different types of products that we buy? I was surprised by the amount of research I found that’s been put forward to answer this question. Clothes last a couple of years, and we often get rid of them because we grow tired of them or they’ve gone out of style, not because of wear and tear. Some tech only lasts a year or two before we persuade ourselves to upgrade, or the market does it for us.

What about that trip to Southeast Asia? As long as you have the photos and journal entries, that experience can be as fresh as the day you had it. Even trying out that new brewpub with some friends will generate some lasting memories compared to a new shirt or some other comparable purchase you didn’t really need.

While I think it’s intrinsically true that memories are more valuable than material wealth, this is something that my generation is starting to realize more and more after witnessing the material excess of the baby boomers being nuked by the 2008 recession.

2. Things weigh you down

It’s no secret that I avoid buying stuff (unless I’m replacing something else) because of the nature of my lifestyle. I travel a lot, and moving back and forth simply becomes unpractical when you have a lot of stuff. With each passing year that I spend in China, I become less comfortable with the term “nomad” because I have made a space here that supports a semi-permanent existence. However, I do own few enough things that I could be packed and ready to go in an hour or two.

I can envision a future when home ownership is something that I will want, but for now, I am enjoying the freedom to move around easily between the US, China, and everywhere in between. Owning fewer things eliminates the logistical nightmare that the whole process could be, and I’m grateful for that not being a factor in any of my current travel-related decisions.

3. Certain things come with additional costs

This post isn’t entirely a treatise on buying things that are necessary, and one’s individual life situation determines what is necessary. For example, if you are an American living outside of a major city, you NEED a car. However, a car is one of those material objects that comes with so many other costs attached to it. In addition to the sticker price, you need to pay for registration, insurance, inspections, maintenance, and fuel. I’ve put off owning a vehicle for as long as possible for these reasons, and I certainly don’t need one in China where public transportation is abundant and affordable.



A car is the best example I could think of for material things that come with hidden costs attached. If you want to explore a new hobby, you could also find yourself wading through an unexpected accumulation of things. I’m certainly not the kind of minimalist that is anti-hobby just because they require things, but it’s something to keep in mind. If you decide you like hiking, prepare to spend a lot on a lot of gear.

4. Experiences make you a better person

Experiences do something that things can’t - they increase our understanding and appreciation of the world around us, as well as reveal a lot about ourselves relative to our surroundings. Experiences increase our knowledge, create relationships, and sometimes teach us sorely-needed painful lessons that we may have never received otherwise. Doing rather than accumulating simply gives you a deeper understanding of pretty much everything: the world, people, yourself.

In an alternate universe tucked somewhere in the fabric of spacetime, there is a version of me that got a job straight out of university, put a downpayment on a house, has kids. I’m sure he’s probably happy, but I’m glad I didn’t take that path. I do want to settle down someday, and perhaps it will take a bit longer than if I had started earlier, but I’m okay with that. I’m glad I’m seeing the world, learning about other cultures, and building onto that part of myself before putting down roots.

5. Short-term euphoria vs. long-term happiness

Let’s not kid ourselves; shopping is kind of a drug. I recently had a PC custom-built at the electronics market here in Daqing, and let me tell you. The whole process of looking around at processors, motherboards, and graphics cards, then finally sitting down with the guy to make a list and have him tell me that everything will be put together and ready in 3 days…woah. The endorphin rush was pretty strong. I know that I’m going to get loads of enjoyment out of that beautiful machine for days to come.

That feeling will eventually fade. I’ll still enjoy gaming and the generous amount of processing power for the projects that require it, but it also become a mundane fixture in my apartment that I barely acknowledge when it’s not in use. Such is the destiny of most of the material things we end up with.

On the other hand, experiences stick with us even when we’re not actively thinking about them. They become a part of us and change us in ways that we don’t even realize, until we do. If you have the opportunity to go on a trip, eat at a new restaurant, or do an escape room with family or friends vs. a comparably priced thing that you don’t really need, go for the experience every time.

Now, excuse me while I get Steam on this beautiful beast of a machine.

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