Maybe Charlie Brown was onto something. Whether you’re moving over the holidays or simply caught up in the holiday bustle, the feelings of happiness we expect at this time of year may not come as easily as we hope. There’s nothing wrong with you or Charlie Brown. We simply need some guidance on how to feel happier by learning how to spend money effectively over the holiday season. Fortunately, the authors of the book, Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending, give us a roadmap with five principles to happier spending.
Once you get past a certain income level, which in the United States is $75,000 annually, making more money doesn’t make you any happier. So, Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton set out to answer the question, “What if people spent their money differently – and better?” Or, put another way, can we buy happiness if we buy the right things?
Buy Experiences Instead of Things to Feel Happier
For my husband’s most recent birthday, we decided to forego gifts. Instead, we took the family indoor skydiving where the five of us learned to fly. As I watched my kids levitate off the ground, I gripped my husband’s hand. I thought dropping into the wind tunnel face first would be nerve-wracking, but that was nothing compared to watching my kids do it . . . and then seeing them bounce around through the air. After each round, we all cheered, slapped high-fives down the row and we shuffled down to our new spot on the bench. The exhilaration bonded us and it was much more exciting than some new ties for Dan.
There are a few reasons Dunn and Norton claim that buying experiences will make you happier than buying things. For one, we quickly get accustomed to new things, so the excitement from that big screen TV or your new car will eventually begin to wear off. More importantly, though, “Research shows that experiences provide more happiness than material goods in part because experiences are more likely to make us feel connected to others” (p. 7). Buying experiences also gives us a unique opportunity to create a story we can reflect upon later. Therefore, this holiday and moving season, spend money on creating memories with family and friends instead of focusing on spending on material items.
Make It a Treat
The second principle to happier spending is the idea of appreciating life’s small joys. I talk a lot about decluttering before a move. Aside from the cost and time savings of moving unwanted items, you are also left with only those items that make you happy. This (somewhat) minimalist approach will make you happier. Dunn and Norton explain, “Abundance, it turns out, is the enemy of appreciation” (p. 27). Additionally, “People who describes themselves as voluntary simplifiers do report greater happiness” (p. 35).
The message in Happy Money is to avoid profound self-denial and to rely on treats instead. Small changes in consumption can make a difference. For example, instead of chugging a cup of Starbucks every day to make it through the day, get it every other day and savor it as a treat. If you’re getting ready for a move, reward yourself at the end of the day with a piece of chocolate.
To Feel Happier, Buy Time
If you could buy part of your life back, Happy Money recommends using your money to change the amount of time you spend on three key activities: “commuting, watching television, and hanging out with friends and family” (p. 63).
If you’re moving, this is the perfect time to reconsider your commute. According to Happy Money, saying “yes” to that job offer with an hour-long commute each way is equally detrimental to your happiness as having no job at all (p. 64). While you may think it’s in your family’s best interest for you to make a longer commute to your new job, research shows this isn’t the case. In fact, research shows that spouses report a lower level of happiness when their spouse has a longer commute (p. 64). Even if you’re already settled, try to find ways to change your commute to improve your happiness.
Pay Now, Consume Later
Delayed gratification will make you happier. Waiting, even just a little while, to eat that piece of chocolate will make you savor it even more when you do indulge. The same is true for vacation planning. You derive joy from the anticipation.
If you are moving over the holidays, reconsider whether it’s important for you to receive that new sweater under the Christmas tree. Instead, order a few treats to arrive after you move to your new place. Better yet, purchase a gift certificate for a restaurant in your new city or tickets to an upcoming event. Since you paid for the item in the past, it allows for guilt-free enjoyment of the activity. It’s like an all-inclusive vacation where you feel like you’re dining for free. It just makes it more fun.
Invest In Others
Last week I shopped at Homegoods for some last minute holiday decorations. At checkout the cashier asked me if I would donate to the St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. In the past, I may have passed. My husband and I track our charitable spending by donating a certain amount all at once. However, after reading Happy Money, I decided making even a small donation can make a difference not only to the organization, but also to my own happiness. Research shows that it doesn’t matter how much you invest in others. Even a $5 donation can make you feel happier.
There’s also a domino effect with charitable spending. When you contribute to a campaign on Facebook, your friends see your contribution and they may consider making a donation as well. At Homegoods, the cashier rang a bell and everyone clapped. We were all in this together, helping out the kids at St. Jude’s. It felt good to give back. So, while you may be strapped for cash at this time of year, you can buy happiness by spending that money on others.
Reference: Dunn, Elizabeth and Michael Norton. Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013.