Why buying stuff isn’t the answer

The one problem with not buying stuff: photos start to look a bit samey…

FOR ONCE we’re ahead of the curve! For-basically-ever we’ve had no interest in shopping or buying stuff for the sake of it. And since becoming digital nomads, we’ve had a great excuse to avoid accumulating unnecessary bits and pieces.

But apparently, we’re all starting to realise that “stuff” doesn’t really make us happy – and loads more people are choosing to spend their time and money on “experiences” instead.

Psychologists, behavioural economists and some of our favourite writers have been saying for yonkos that buying nice dresses, shoes, cushions and pastry forks will only give us a temporary high before we come crashing down and need another shopping fix pronto.

But it seems it took the credit crunch (“I’m going to spend more carefully… the dog doesn’t really need to drink out of crystal bowls”) and 3G/decent tethering/featherlight laptops (“Why spend all my money on black cabs and dinners at Le Caprice when I can work from the beach in Phuket and spend about 50p on lobster fried rice AND a massage?”) to really get people in the mood to swap shopping for living.

This isn’t about quitting your job, moving to the Far East and living out of a backpack though. It’s about understanding that all this spending won’t make us happy, and that having possessions limits our freedom. 

We all know that all this spending won’t make us happy

So we won’t dwell on it for too long. And these books explain things jolly well:

The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

To nutshellise:

  • These days, we have too many choices about what to buy – which sometimes causes Rob to yell out  “THEY NEED TO BRING BACK COMMUNISM OR ELSE I’LL DIE FROM WORRYING ABOUT WHETHER I CHOSE THE BEST SOCK.” Lots of choices is a problem because we’re always worried we chose the wrong thing – so we can never be entirely satisfied with what we bought.
  • We forget how crap our old stuff was. As Daniel Gilbert says: “When we start shopping for a new pair of sunglasses, we naturally contrast the hip, stylish ones in the store with the old, outdated ones that are sitting on our noses. So we buy the new ones and stick the old ones in a drawer. But after just a few days of wearing our new sunglasses we stop comparing them with the old pair, and–well, what do you know? The delight that the comparison produced evaporates.”
  • We’re too darn good at adapting. Which is great if you’ve got to move to Doncaster for a job, but not so fabulous if you’ve spent £50k on your “I’ve retired!” celebration car. It’s all based on our genetic “base level of happiness”. If you’re a misery guts and you’re delighted by the jewellery you’ve just bought, your happiness level will surge… but not for long. Then you’ll adapt to having it, and you’ll be as miserable as ever. Lottery winners, for example, report higher levels of happiness immediately following the event. But their happiness levels return to their normal base level >within months. You can change your base level of happiness in some ways, but buying stuff just won’t do the trick.

But here’s the biggie – the new and fashionable (and spot-on) reason why buying stuff is a bad idea: 

Having possessions limits our freedom

When we got married in 2011, we received a ton of fancy crockery from some very generous relatives. It’s beautiful, hugely expensive crockery, and it caused breakage-related panics every time we had a meal (doing the maths, that’s 42 heart flutters a week – more if we had guests). 

And where is it now? In storage (at a parent’s house – we can’t remember which). It’s been there for ten months, and we’d kinda forgotten it existed.

Heaps of our stuff is at parents’ houses: clothes we’ll probably never wear, a DAB digital radio we never had any use for because the internet exists, books we now have on Kindle too, DVD box sets of TV shows we watched once… there’s even a car in my parents’ driveway that belongs to us. And these are the possessions of people who don’t even like buying stuff: we have NOTHING compared what some of our friends own. 

Offload to feel free

Offloading all this gear means we can do anything we want, whenever we like. Yes – we can travel around the world as digital nomads, but that’s only one benefit. The main, overriding advantage is that we’re not tied to anything. We don’t need to worry about paying the TV licence or the car insurance, or think about where our “winter wardrobe” should go when we’re off somewhere sunny. We’re free, and we have no excuses to put off filling our lives with experiences.

This all works for non-digital nomads too. If you aren’t weighed down with stuff, you’ve got the freedom to do so much more with your spare time.

We’re mighty lucky because our parents are kind-hearted enough to let our random shit take over their homes. But there’ll come a day when they scream “Enough! I do NOT need to attempt an assault course every time I go for a wee.” And then we’ll have to chuck everything, give it away or put it into storage. There are a few meaningful items that we’ll want to keep, but the rest of it doesn’t really contribute to our overall feelings of wellbeing or happiness: it’s just “things” that we have no use for, so we’ll probably give as much  away as possible before we chuck the rest.

Stuff vs experiences

“Stuff” doesn’t make anyone happy. 

But experiences do:

  • They improve with time (we tend to remember the best bits).
  • We can’t directly compare them to other experiences (whereas we can easily compare a possession to something else that we perhaps should have bought instead).
  • They encourage social relationships, and good social relationships make us happy.


All that spending won’t make you happy, and having all those things will limit your freedom – which won’t make you feel happy either. So even if you think you love spending, and you think you love owning things, just have a go at cutting down on a few bits gradually. You’ll be just as happy – if not happier – and you’ll have more money to spend on the experiences that really can make you happy.


Disclaimer: We’re not saying we’re perfect. We may hate shopping, but we definitely still buy more stuff than we need. I’m a sucker for travel accessories like compression sacks and fun-looking suitcase tags, and Rob owns so many laptop accessories that his Asus is now laden with dangly things. We’re slowly learning too!

  • Love this! I am the ultimate hoarder (I used to be a librarian – you can tell this from my 600+ books all over the flat. And I do mean all over.) and a compulsive crafter, with all the stuff and tools that go with that.

    But having to move unexpectedly has made me sort through everything and give away, throw out or donate a ridiculous amount of stuff – and I don’t miss it!

    I’m hoping the new house will still be filled with things that make me happy, but not cluttered with stuff that stresses me out… woo yay!

    🙂 Carla xx

    • Mish


      Sometimes when we’re back in London, we have those “We really shouldn’t have sold the cafetiere” moments, but most of the time everything about our lives feels so much less cluttered.

      Are you going to keep the books or sell them/give them away?

      Good luck with the move!

  • We recently got rid of 90% of our belongings in order to move from Minnesota to Kauai. Liberating ourselves from possessions is the best thing we have ever done.

    • Mish

      90%?! That’s incredible Betsy! Can I ask what you did with all your old stuff?

      I’ve just read the “about” page on your site (http://passingthru.com/about/). Everyone HAS to read it! As much as I hate using the word “inspirational”, it really is just that.

      Love how your friends placed informal bets on how long you’d last for!

      • Thank you so much for the link, Mish! I am beginning work on an e-book that will document our downsizing journey from vacationing here a year ago to right now. I believe some people are still quite shocked that we actually up and did exactly what we said we were going to do. 😉

        Once we are in our rental house we will begin blog posting more regularly.. There is no question a move of this nature is disruptive and has chaotic elements, especially if one thrives with a routine. But I highly recommend it anyway.

  • I’m really fortunate that I married a man from a less affluent, less possession-centric culture than mine… and in a different country, so I entered the marriage with nothing but one suitcase of clothes and one suitcase of books. Our wedding registry consisted of about a dozen “everyday” type items (like a blender).

    I went from an upper-middle-class suburban home to a house that’s smaller than my parents’ basement… and my/our happiness levels are A-OK!

    • Mish

      Hey Shayna!

      Thanks for the awesome comment.

      We’ve been reading your blog lately and love the comparisons you make between your old life and your new one.

      You’re definitely waaay more hardcore than us (and better at putting up with things that bother you, like cold showers). We could learn heaps from you!

      Are you planning to stay in Brazil for the long-term?

      • Hi Mish! I’ll be here for at least the next two years while my husband finishes school… and by the time he graduates, my business will be able to fund the extensive travel we plan on doing. Of course, Brazil isn’t such a bad place to be “stuck” for now 🙂

        • Mish

          Good point!

          And wow… what plans you’ve got. It’d be so great to meet if we ever end up in the same country at the same time!