My mother is a collector. Not a hoarder, by any means, but a collector of loads of different things. From pewter to antique furniture pieces, her home was essentially exhibit after exhibit. Some exhibits were sentimental; others were kitschy and silly; but they were all proudly displayed in every corner of her home.
I grew up surrounded by things. There was a sort of reverence to examining my mother’s collections and I, too, developed an attachment to collecting. My collections weren’t necessarily for display, though. I just felt compelled to have more. More clothes, more shoes, more makeup, it didn’t matter if it added any real value to my life. Having stuff seemed to offer me a sense of value. And new stuff was particularly valuable to me.
Except new stuff becomes routine, quickly. The newness wears off as we incorporate our things into our daily lives. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as “hedonic adaptation.” The new phone or bag that brought us tremendous joy when first acquired becomes just another item in a mountain of meaningless possessions, and swiftly, we long for another new thing.
When I became an adult, with my own money, I fell into the trap of buying, collecting, and needing things. It was an emotional need, not practical or motivated by any actual desire. On days when I felt disappointment or stress, I found myself comforted by a trip to Target. The ease of online shopping only made my tendency to buy unnecessary things more reckless. And soon, I had dozens of pairs of shoes, hundreds of clothing items, endless makeup palettes, and purses; none of which I wore or used. I had all of these things, but they weren’t making me happy.
Because of my collecting and unnecessary spending, I didn’t have the means to go and do in the way my colleagues and friends were doing. Seeing photos and hearing stories of adventures to places I’d dreamt of going made me long for the freedom to travel. And recognizing that my child wasn’t getting the benefit of foreign travel that my grandmother had given me was the realization that made me examine both my spending and my priorities.
I decided to shift my priority to spending money on experiences rather than possessions. This is what I learned:
Experience is the best teacher:
As an educator, I’m a lifelong learner, and there is no better way to learn about people, culture, language, and art than by traveling, exploring, and talking to people. There aren’t items that can replace the experience of engaging with people and immersing oneself in new flavors and traditions. Traveling offered me the opportunity to interact with my surroundings and learn from those interactions. Each new place provided a catalogue of new information and I became richer for having taken them in.
I thought, as a young adult, that I was well-informed and aware of global circumstances, but when I went to Romania for the first time, I realized just how little I actually knew. Traveling through an area that had undergone tremendous struggles, economically and politically, and witnessing the impact of those struggles through the manifestation of poverty and epidemic level polio, provided me with a global perspective that I was previously unprepared for. In my sheltered, affluent upbringing, polio had been eradicated and poverty was something people talked about but I hadn’t actually seen. Seeing the truth outside of my backyard gave me purpose, compassion, and drive to examine just how much I was taking for granted.
Happiness gained from experience does not fade:
Unlike with material possessions, the joy one experiences from travel or simply trying a new restaurant does not fade. Memories of adventurous vacations or new, exciting experiences trigger nostalgia and happiness in a way that never becomes mundane. Thinking back on times when I tried something new creates a sense of success, wholeness, and accomplishment for me. Possessions momentarily made me feel good, but it wasn’t lasting and it didn’t better me as a person.
Last year, I went to Los Angeles for the first time. I was alone and only had one evening to explore. I took myself to Santa Monica, to see the beach, and out for Thai food. I can still see the colors of the sun setting over the Pacific and taste the spice of those Drunken Noodles. I remember the conversation with my Uber driver and exactly how the water at the beach felt on my toes. I’ve never owned a pair of shoes or a bag that could fill me with that kind of joy.
Experience felt like freedom; Possessions felt like responsibility:
Prioritizing experiences like travel, new flavors, and engaging with real people made me realize that I was adding real value to my quality of life. I was learning, growing more confident, and finding out new things about myself and the world around me. My collection of things didn’t add value to my life. If anything, I felt overwhelmed by clutter and distractions.
When I travel, I temporarily leave behind responsibilities. There are no chores to do, no classes to teach; nothing but the opportunity to experience new things. Possessions in my life are often inherently connected to responsibility. These shoes are for work. These clothes need to be washed. I need this phone because it has a better data plan for my classwork. Travel is the temporary liberation from those things. There is no clutter when I travel.
Experience is priceless, but cheaper than shopping:
To be fair, I don’t take outrageous vacations. I’m a public school teacher, after all. For years, I believed I couldn’t afford any vacations. It didn’t seem possible, on a teacher’s salary, to jet off to some glamorous beach. But when I stopped buying things I didn't want or need, budgeting for a vacation wasn’t difficult. I started utilizing competing online travel services, and finding incredible deals on dream destinations wasn’t even difficult. I spend less money on travel each year than I did on miscellaneous “stress shopping” with my previous priorities.
Six months of restricted spending provided me with the opportunity to take my daughter to Mexico for the first time. I didn’t miss the nail polish or lattes I was used to buying. What I gained were endless memories of zip lines, water sports, the exploration of Mayan Ruins, and a lifetime of conversations that start, “Remember when we…”
Experiencing new things together strengthens relationships:
This sounds like a no-brainer, but when we examine the way we live, we don’t always prioritize togetherness. Being an adult and parent comes with responsibilities that almost never allow for down-time. Dedicating time to experience things with our children provides an opportunity to learn and grow as a family. Traveling with my daughter has created a space for me to open her eyes to global issues, show her historically significant sites, and expose her to cultural traditions which help shape her understanding of and compassion for the world around her.
My mother’s collections were beautiful. The museum-like quality of my childhood home will always have a special place in my heart. My collections, though, have changed. I’m collecting memories; memories of sunsets and street-performers, memories of skylines and pristine beaches, and memories of my daughter engaging with and learning about more than what’s on a screen in front of her.