Stop Buying Things and Start Doing Things

Stop Buying Things and Start Doing Things

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It’s a pretty simple message: “Stop buying things and start doing things.”

Our culture centers around consumption. We buy certain brands or certain types of items for the status and recognition that we think it construes.

We buy bigger houses, only to fill them with more things. Even our standard of living tends to be conflated with the GDP measurement of the country.

“We no longer live life, we consume it.” — Your Money or Your Life.

But study after study over the past few decades has found that the purchase of these material goods isn’t what makes us happy, it’s the experiences we have that make us happy.

“This might seem counter-intuitive. After all, when faced with a trade-off between doing and buying, many people opt for the material good because ‘it will still be there’ long after the experience would have been enjoyed. In one sense that’s correct: The material good lasts while the experience is fleeting. But psychologically it’s the reverse. We quickly adapt to the material good, but the experience endures in the memories we cherish, the stories we tell, and the very sense of who we are.” — Time Magazine.

“One reason that paying for experiences gives us longer-lasting happiness is that we can reminisce about them, researchers say. That’s true for even the most middling of experiences. That trip to Rome during which you waited in endless lines, broke your camera and argued with your spouse will typically be airbrushed with “rosy recollection”. — New York Times

Buying things will not make you happy.

Stop Buying Things and Start Doing Things armchair-alpinist

Things vs Experiences

Of course, we need some amount of money and things to meet our most basic needs: food, clothing, shelter, etc. But beyond that, the way we spend our money would be better spent on cultivating the types of experiences we love rather than just buying things to fill our homes.

Those of you who love to travel or explore the outdoors are probably nodding your heads in agreement. The actual act of doing the things we love is so much more fun than buying the things that allow us to do it, and thankfully the things we buy are meant to get us out there doing.

Backpacks to carry our gear, tents to sleep in, mountain bikes to go riding.

These are all worthwhile things to spend money on, so long as you’re out there actually using them.

But let’s face it, the gear for many different hobbies can be very expensive indeed.

If you’re out there and using them and having fun, that’s all that really matters. Thankfully, the relative cost of an item goes down with time, as well: a $300 tent used once might as well be a stay in a luxury hotel, but a $300 tent used hundreds of times over a few years is a much cheaper proposition–not to mention all the memories it provides along the way.

In some hobbies though, it seems like the gear and accessorizing can supersede the actual activity itself, a sort of consolation prize for not doing the activity. I’ve seen this in ultralight backpacking where people get wrapped up in the latest and greatest gear, the online forums, and cutting their base weight ounce by ounce, but some rarely get out and actually go backpacking.

I’ve seen this in places like the Overland Expo where people plan for years and years buying every trick, gadget, and accessory for their truck for every contingency, but never actually can break away to go on that dream trip and drive the Pan-American Highway.

It is easy to convince yourself you need to go buy something else, something newer, something better, just one more accessory, just one more thing in your pack to make your trip easier, more successful, more something. But every time that thought pops into your head, take more than just a few days to really analyze whether that is true.

Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t.

Be sure to remember that every dollar you spend on gear and gadgets is one less dollar you can spend on getting out on your adventures, making that dream trip come true, and having those experiences that will be cherished for the rest of your life. Also, remember that we actually buy things with time NOT money.

I do know that it is far easier to find things to buy and add than find things to eliminate or to get rid of everything.

Every long term traveler, whether they are backpacking around the world, thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, or overlanding across South America, has that story of all the stuff they brought but didn’t need or use.

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Sometimes it is best to just put the endless preparation and purchases behind you and start getting out there and creating memories. That is the secret to living a remarkable life and having a story worth telling.

What do you think? Do you feel that consumer culture has consumed your hobbies? How have your own purchases either enhanced or detracted from your experiences? How do you balance the purchasing of things, with getting out there and doing things?

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Stop Buying Things and Start Doing Things armchair-alpinist


Head Writer and Adventurer at Desk to Dirtbag
Ryan is an author, adventurer, perpetual wanderer, and self-proclaimed dirtbag (but that might not mean what you think). Originally from Seattle, he headed to Washington D.C. where he spent five years working for Congress before heeding the call of the wild. He set out truck camping to road trip across the American West, and then across all of Central America and South America. When he isn't on the move, you can find him living as an expat in Colombia. He is also the author of the best selling book: Big Travel, Small Budget that will help you travel more for less. Follow the adventures on social media or read more.

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Comments 25

  1. That’s really a great advice! We are always fascinated by the materialistic world rather than enjoying what we have already. I don’t want to become a victim of this so I am changing my thoughts too.

  2. I love this post! Its crazy how travel and roadtrips change your life. I only wish I learned this mentality earlier. Great site! experiences > things

  3. Hey Ryan! Just discovered this site and its very exciting! My husband and I should be leaving on my first big road trip this coming summer!

    We recenly went on our first multi-day backpacking trip and we made do with a lot of cheap stuff. I could see other hikers we met looking at our gear with more than a little derision and superiority. A $30 Canadian tire tent, dollar store head-lamps, my dad’s old pack, homemade dehydrator food and *gasp* cotton clothing. The only thing we bothered spending a lot on were new lightweight hikers and socks. I do now understand why people get the nice gear, it certainly adds to your comfort, but it was the experience and the amazing views that stay with me, not the fact that my clothes smelled. It was actually amazing how many day-hikers or one-nighters that had all this expensive gear who were i awe of our journey!

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      That’s great to hear Chelsea… Yeah, there are so many people that drop HUGE amounts of money on gear at the beginning and then just let it collect dust. Good gear is nice, but it is not a necessity to get out there and enjoy the world. I prioritize the experiences over the things, always.

  4. Ryan, you make some great points here. While I’ve kept my gear fetish mostly under control, a few years back I fell into the habit of accumulating technical outdoor clothing. Being a dirtbag myself, I would NEVER pay retail for this stuff but was always sniffing out deals – I’d buy at the end of season, outlet stores etc. and it almost became an obsession because “it was a great deal” – $50.00 marmot soft shells, $28.00(!!!) for a new $150.00 patagonia retro fleece… You get the picture. I was looking thru all of this stuff recently and realized I may have enough of it for the rest of my life (I’m mid 50s). I guess this could be an upside – I know that now if I go into an REI or whatever I just go “nope, I don’t need any of that stuff” which is both somewhat comforting and disturbing…

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      Yeah, that’s the thing… It’s really easy to fall into the gear accumulation trap in the beginning stages, but then after a period of buying all sorts of stuff, you realize you’re pretty much just all set. There’s nothing more to add. And if you buy good quality gear (yes, often expensive) it is often an investment that will last for a really long time. A good sleeping bag should last you. It’s great to get those good deals on good products, but I always chuckle at the people who buy low quality gear at a cheap price to save money but then ends up breaking or wearing out super fast and then just have to buy another one. Buy good stuff from the get go, get out there and use it, and try and take care of it so it’ll last.

  5. The great thing about being a gear-junkie in the past is that I can completely outfit four or five people for backpacking or climbing, and two for mountaineering/ice climbing, kayaking, or mountain biking. 😉

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      Hahah, yeah, that’s true. I’ve got enough for two for ultralight backpacking trips, mountaineering summit bids, etc. Always nice to be able to help outfit a friend!

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      Nice Aron! What’s the plan? You’re always off to pretty awesome places, it seems… Less is more, I think. Especially while you’re traveling. Sucks getting weight down by stuff–both physically and psychologically speaking.

  6. I love the message. Too many people have their priorities in the wrong place. They think buying the perfect piece of gear will get them outdoors, when in reality they have most of what they need.

    And there are alternatives, like borrowing gear, renting gear, and trading gear.

    And of course, just making do with what you’ve already got.

    1. Post

      Thanks for chiming in, Jeff! Exactly. There’s a lot of either ‘better’ or more specialized pieces of gear that people mistake as a need, rather than a want. At some point the spectrum should shift from gear acquisition to activity enjoyment, else you’re just wasting your time and money. That doesn’t mean that one can’t want or buy new gear down the road–but just recognize it for what it is.

  7. I find this is really prevalent when starting a new hobby. It’s easy to get caught up in the gear you think you need to start a hobby, or that your lack of gear is holding you back.

    I’ve started to only buy a piece of gear when I realize I need it, rather than stock piling gear “in case” I need it. I also tend to ask myself, “will this new piece of gear make me enjoy doing X more?” If the answer is yes then I’ll go ahead with the purchase. If not, I’ll wait until it’s needed.

    I also find that you can get caught up in researching your purchases so much that you’re paralyzed with the choices you have. Reading reviews, tech specs, the forums, etc. can leave you paralyzed by fear of choosing the wrong option. I’m currently in this position when trying to get a new sleeping bag. I’ve wanted one for months, but I can’t find the “perfect bag” so I’m stuck with my old one which I hate. I need to learn to just get out there and buy one and be happy with it.

    1. Post

      Alex, you raise some really important points. There is definitely that new hobby syndrome which some people tend to go overboard with. Buying a whole new backpacking kit is certainly not cheap, but I’m somewhat thankful that I’m not into something like road biking… You hear about those people just getting into it and they drop $4,000 or something on a Lance Armstrong caliber carbon fiber bike and then they barely ride it. Yikes! It’s important to kind of test the waters, I think, with new hobbies: borrow, rent, or buy low-end second hand gear to get a feel for it, make sure you enjoy it, and see if it is something you stick with.

      Your second point about the “analysis paralysis” is great too. Have you heard about the “Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz? He found that an increasing number of options reduces action or participation accordingly (like for employees enrolling in retirement funds). He also found that even when we do take action and buy that sleeping bag, that we are more likely to be dissatisfied with our choice. Since with 100’s of sleeping bags, we expect to find the perfect one (for us). When we have it and we find something wrong, we’ll think “ohh, I should’ve bought that other sleeping bag”. And who’s fault is it for buying the wrong one? Well, yours of course. He’s got a great TED Talk on the subject:

  8. Hey Ryan, I love what you’re saying here and I agree wholeheartedly!

    I think one of the issues I see is that a decade ago, when “times were good” (i.e. we were in the middle of a ginormous housing bubble), most Americans did have the economic resources to buy many possessions as well as experiences. Yet now that the economy is not so hot, many of us are faced with a dilemma: Which area do we cut back on?

    Luckily, I’m seeing more and more people trending in the direction of experiences over possessions. This is definitely a positive development, and I’m glad to see you’re leading the charge! Keep it up 🙂

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      Hey Henry, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I think you’ve certainly hit on one aspect of it. I know some of my relatives that reached adulthood in the booming 90s that are laden with all sorts of toys, from boats to ATVs and RVs, etc. And I think they are definitely feeling a little more strapped with all their toys and activities. I’ve always wondered how much use (experience) they actually get with all of those toys (things) though… I’m not judging anyone, but I hope all of their things have provided a huge return on investment in the form of fun and memories.

      I think you’re right that there is a more apparent trend in experiences vs possessions, which I’m guessing has something to do with these bubbles popping and more people questioning the nature of consumption. I’m not sure that I’m leading the charge, but I’m happy to add my voice and pose the question! 🙂

  9. Great article, Ryan. I definitely agree. I’m always struggling with buying new gear. I’ll see something online and immediately jump on Amazon to see what its going for. Lately I’ve been trying to follow the same advice you mentioned. Keeping things simple and planning more trips with the gear I have. Keep up the great work. Thanks!

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      I think that’s a sound strategy, Chris! Thanks for chiming in. On the whole I think people should definitely focus on spending their money with experiences in mind, which us outdoors-types tend to do. But even for us outdoors-types I think we should always try to continually reassess whether our spending is achieving this or not. If we find that our gear is just collecting dust or remains unused… well, then it’s time to remedy that!

      I see it as a scale, on one end you’ve got experiences and the other you’ve got things. It’d be hard to be entirely at one end or the other (no things, just experiences, or no experiences and only things), but we should try and push the dial toward the experiences end as much as we can.

  10. Great Post. I like to spend my money on trips and gear I need for those trips. I love testing out new gear but should prob try spend more on trips for the memories and less on gear!

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      Thanks, Niall! I definitely think that’s the way to go, not just for gear but for other areas of life. Spend on classes and education and skills and travel and other things that either open up new experiences or enhance them…

  11. I’ve actually been thinking this very same thing lately. And I often find myself being a victim of this gear game. Always purchasing… Yet my memories lie in the experiences I’ve accumulated. I would rather watch myself succeed than sit on the sidelines talking about it. I choose to live. Great post, I enjoyed it very much

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      Thanks for comment, Joshua! Yeah, when I’m looking back and thinking about a particular trip, I recall the amazing views, the glowing sunset, a waterfall, or jokes around the campfire. Not whether I was using X or Y water filter or which base layer I was wearing…

  12. Hey Ryan. I’ve got to say, what you’re doing is very inspiring. I really enjoyed your latest article. I too have fallen into the gear trap. I’m trying to get away from that, especially when I consider that my income isn’t what it once was. I’m more than happy to use my big old hiking boots, originally bought to keep the mud and snow out, on my summer treks as well despite the weight.

    I hope you do drive down to South America. That would be an epic adventure. I recently met a Spaniard who motorcycled his way from Spain to China. Take care! Good luck!

    1. Post

      Hey Mike! Thanks for reading and leaving a comment! I appreciate the kind words!

      Wrestling with the gear trap is challenging indeed. But yeah, after a certain level of acquiring stuff, I’ve just got to say, okay maybe this isn’t the perfect piece of gear for this use, but it works and I’m just going to have to make do. When I was employed I could just buy things, but now that I have no income, I really, really need to think about any purchases and whether they are worthwhile or not.

      South America has been in the back of my mind for a long while… We’ll see. 🙂 I hope you’re enjoying your own travels though!

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