Why Experiences Are Better Than Things

Instead of giving (and getting) gifts that will gather dust in your current house and take up valuable space in your next PCS weight allowance, give an experience this holiday season.

I couldn’t tell you what I received for Christmas or my birthday without looking at the photographic evidence carefully cataloged by my parents for the last 30ish years. Sure, I remember getting an American Girl doll, a really awesome bike and one fabulous cardboard house that I could decorate myself.

Nope, scratch that.

I don’t remember getting these gifts – I remember experiencing them.

I vividly recall throwing a flamingo pink tutu over my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles PJs before dancing around with my little sister outside that cardboard house. I remember playing school with the American Girl doll and learning to sew her clothes myself. I also have the scars for the countless times I fell off that much-longed-for bike.

Last year, The Atlantic published an article that quickly went viral: Buy Experiences, Not Things. At the time, I thought that it was a great idea, but I didn’t feel compelled to act.

Then, at a family birthday party this summer, I watched as the birthday boys unwrapped present after present. Each one was another toy of some sort, most of which made sounds and would be played with for approximately 1 week each. The kids both had piles of toys inside the house. Of those dozens of toys, the majority were ignored or forgotten. I thought about the money that the party guests had spent on these things, designed to make the boys happy. This money would ultimately be wasted as the toys stopped being played with and gathered dust.

I thought back to all of the toys, clothes and things that we had received for our new baby. Some of it necessary, lots of it extraneous, most of it gifted by loving friends and family members. I thought about my stuffed animals, gathering dust at my parents’ house. I thought about the mountains of toys, games, movies and just stuff owned by the children in my life. I wondered,

What is that stuff worth? Was it worth the money it cost or the space it takes up?

The things I remember most about the holidays or any days, from my childhood revolve not around things or stuff or presents I received, but who I was with and what we did and where we were.

The things I treasure most are not things at all but people, places and experiences.

However, giving experiences and not things can be hard. For families that are separated by miles, it is easy to ship a shiny new toy to a child or send a gift card to an adult. It keeps the connection alive across the country and around the world.

Instead of giving (and getting) gifts that will gather dust in your current house and take up valuable space in your next PCS weight allowance, give an experience this holiday season.

Plus, it is really tough to package up and mail an experience. You can’t really wrap up a moonlight horseback ride or ziplining through the rainforest. It can feel “cheap” to send a gift card to do an activity instead of sending a bulky box stuffed with goodies.

Moving away from material gift giving is tough.

After all, there are thousands of ads that invade our space each and every day. They inform us that our love lives will be better if we get our wives that diamond necklace or get a new golf club for our spouse. Our parents will love us more if we send them a food assortment package. Our children will be happier if we buy all of these new (and loud and expensive) toys for them. But none of that is true or at least not totally true.

According to Dr. Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University, buying things makes us happy at first and then the happiness fades. He told Fast Company that “we buy things to make us happy, and we succeed. But only for a while. New things are exciting to us at first, but then we adapt to them.”

I think this is because without a unique and wonderful experience each new present we give or get simply becomes another object in our lives. We never think about how awesome our bed is or remark upon the amazing nature of our couch. Toys and technology aren’t any different; they are just things.

As military spouses and families, we live on the move. We pack up our whole home and may move every 3 years, if not more often. I’ve heard everyone complain about how much STUFF they have accumulated, how awful it is to move it all and then unpack it all at the new place. We all complain. There are private Facebook groups dedicated to military spouses complaining about how much their last PCS plain old sucked, what was lost and damaged or ranting about a horrific moving company.

We don’t have to have more stuff to move each PCS. We just don’t.

Plus, that stuff we gather more of each year is expensive! We spend so much money on gift giving, especially during the holiday season.

In 2014, the American Research Group predicted that the average citizen would spend $861 last holiday season. That is staggering. Think about all those gifts: teachers, bus drivers, immediate family, extended family, hostesses, service providers and the list goes on and on. The money adds up fast.

It’s not just holidays either that we see gift giving in all its materialistic glory. Birthdays, military homecomings, retirements, change of command. I mean, if I see another plaque or unit flag emblazoned item enter my house, I might just lose my mind.

We do not need to give or get things, objects or stuff to be happy. Studies are showing over and over that “receiving” quality time and/or experiences makes humans happier for longer periods of time, for both the giver and the getter. So let’s do that instead!

Think about what makes the person you are buying a present for happy. If you were buying an experience for me, for example, I like to read, be outdoors, run and travel. I also like coffee and wine.

A cool experience present for me would be a road race entry ticket to be run with the giver or a voucher for a wine tasting with the giver. Or even just a cup of coffee at the local cafe with, you guessed it, the giver of the gift. Instead of just another coffee cup, I would get time with a person I cared about doing something that we both hopefully enjoy.

A memory would be created instead of another cute coffee mug gathering dust on my shelf.

This formula is easily transferable to almost everyone on your list. Just think about what each person enjoys and find an experience that matters.

For kids, a membership or one-day pass to a children’s museum or indoor playground or pottery painting place might be cool.

Your spouse might like to take golfing lessons or a wine tasting course or a cooking class or have a night out at the movies with you.

Most parents (and grandparents) just want to see you, do something that everyone enjoys and relax.

So, instead of giving (and getting) a bunch of stuff that will gather dust in your current house and take up valuable space in your next PCS weight allowance, go the experience route with me. Give something that your friends and family will actually remember for years to come. Personally, I’d rather taste the wine than get the heavily decorated glass.

How do you give experiences instead of gifts this holiday season? Share your tips in the comments section. 



  1. As we move through life, we might buy things like you stated, collecting things that gathers dust. What we may not realize, is that we are not just buying things, we are buying and collecting memories.

    I’m sure you have experienced a PCS and something broke or got lost, and you had to file a claim. The harder claims are for the things that have “sentimental” value as there are memories attached to it. How can we put a monetary value on that?

    Or when we visit our parents home and they have odd things on display, a child’s doll, your 3rd grade picture, a weird looking clay pot thing you made in kindergarten. For each object there are memories attached to it. We are not buying things, we are buying memories.


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