Things vs. Experiences

by Katy on January 6, 2013 · 23 comments

When I was a kid I didn’t own the stuff that other kids seemed to take for granted. My clothing was never on-trend, my single pair of school shoes were always from JCPenney and my coats were bought at an annual rummage sale. (Although my mother bought them in bulk, as I had a tendency to abandon my coats on the playground.) We only ever owned a single car at a time and I recall just a few restaurant meals. Ever. However, we traveled through Europe and lived in London when I was 3-4/10-11 and 19-20.

My father is an English professor, so we weren’t technically poor. But teaching is not exactly a road to riches, even at the university level.

My parents could have chosen to buy the San Francisco Riding Gear wide-leg designer jeans that could have been my ticket to popularity and acceptance, but there was simply not enough money for both lifestyles.

My husband and I don’t travel to Europe, Hawaii or Mexico for relaxation, our cars are both long in the tooth, and in exchange I get to work part time and live a life without the anxiety of debt and how to pay next month’s mortgage. Life is more expensive than it used to be. My parents paid $20,000 for their move-in ready in 1969, and we bought our fixer-upper in 1996 for $136,000. (Housing in Portland is expensive, ya’ll!)

But just because we don’t travel through Europe doesn’t mean that we choose things over experiences. Our house is furnished with curbside and thrift shop finds, and our clothes would not gain us acceptance into any social clique.

My sons have been able to travel to Japan multiple times, and my husband and I have each been once. It was never an instance of simply writing a check, and instead always came together from the dribs and drabs of our entrepreneurial efforts.

I choose experiences over stuff. Designer jeans be damned!

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

betsyohs January 6, 2013 at 10:35 am

In the same theme, and since Christmas is still on my mind, my favorite presents when I was a kid were from one aunt who would give us experiences – going with her to a UW women’s basketball game, going with her to see a concert, going on a picnic lunch boat trip with just her (ie no parents and no sister), going ice skating. Just last year, she gave me a 1-day skate-ski rental and a lesson (taught by her!) that was fabulous.

Also, have you seen this video? It’s not safe for work – lots of swearing. But barring that, it could totally be your theme song.


Kate January 6, 2013 at 12:41 pm

I would like this if I had a facebook. My husband and I camp for “travel” , rent a tiny carriage house, and my son’s Christmas gifts were mostly second hand. In exchange, I work part time and so does he- he recently left his 9-5 to be a professional musician ( he has a degree in music performance). We get to spend a lot of time together most families do not, even though it is at public parks and libraries (free!)


Dan Garner January 6, 2013 at 12:45 pm

I’m there with you on that. Old cars, old houses, not many clothes, but plenty of memories. In the last 10 years I’ve been to NYC three times, Alaska, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier, Colorado several times, Moab twice, Kings Canyon and Sequoia, Big Sur, San Francisco a few times, Florida twice, and SoCal a few times. I hope to be moving to Colorado soon and will start focusing my travels over seas. All of this on very modest incomes and a kid in college. You’ve just got to prioritize.

Dan @ ZenPresence


Renee CA January 6, 2013 at 1:35 pm

Oh man. My husbands parents still own the house he was raised in. $8,000 in 1949. It is a rental now and he has to deal with it.

I wish I had been better about the experience over things. Took me a while to figure that one out.


julie January 6, 2013 at 1:50 pm

I completely agree. Well said.


Trish January 6, 2013 at 2:36 pm

We have an old, rather shabby farmhouse away from it all, and our lifestyle allows for my horses, which are everything to me. I will NEVER have granite countertops. I want to do things, not have things. I run into people all the time who are wistful about having horses, and in the same conversation tell me about their fabulous house which probably cost 3 times as much as mine.


Ellie January 8, 2013 at 8:30 am

Another horse person, huh?

I don’t own horses, but I take lessons and trail ride at a well-run stable. It’s not a cheap hobby, but it’s an experience that means a lot to me.

I wear riding clothes from the consignment section of the tack shop, I live in a small house with a kitchen that hasn’t been remodeled, my car is old and generic and fuel-efficient, and almost all of my stuff is second-hand.

But I’d rather have memories of things like the satisfaction of finally riding a perfect pattern on a challenging horse after weeks of frustration, or the beauty of a trail ride at sunset in October, than a trendy sweater or granite countertop, thank you.


tna January 6, 2013 at 3:02 pm

I never understood the big deal of wasting all the money on fuel driven machines to go somewhere that half the people there would rather be where you came from to begin with.


One Day At A Time January 6, 2013 at 3:46 pm

Working on the experiences over things, it’s definitely a work in progress. Boy did I want ‘things’ growing up, so desperately. When I left my parents home and went to college and suddenly had my own credit cards (with no income) I bought myself STUFF. All the stuff I had always wanted. Years later I can only shake my head and teach my son differently. Of course I have spent the last 2 3/4 years of his life giving him everything I assumed a kid needed and wanted. All the things I felt I didn’t have. Again I shake my head. This year is different, this year is going to be all about experiences and weaning me (and him) off the stuff.


Bauunny January 6, 2013 at 4:23 pm

Coming to the realization that “stuff” is not as valuable as experiences takes time, maturity and a healthy dose of self-confidence I think. It can be a struggle at times. Someone once told me they thought needing tons of stuff was all about trying to be better than other people – a thought provoking thought. Now shedding stuff is my priority so I don’t have to spend time taking care of it. I would much rather focus on experiences and have both the free time and money to do so. That said, I enjoy ” refreshing” my environment and also enjoy being more organized (which is definitely easier with less stuff). In the “new economy” we now love in, it is much easier to not be caught up in the rush to acquire. It seems much healthier too.


Sadye January 9, 2013 at 2:48 pm

I agree with you about the “new economy,” Bauunny. A few years back, the New York Times (I think) ran an article saying that the recession had influenced a lot of people to think like Katy’s parents did rather than obsessing over “things,” and while the article didn’t revolutionize my life, it did tweak the way I’ve thought about spending ever since then!


Alison January 6, 2013 at 5:07 pm

Katy, I am so grateful for the way that you articulate how I too prioritize and live. I am a nurse that could be working full time so that we could “have it all”, however I too chose to work casual and as a result, spend most of my time at home managing family life for my husband and four children. I heart our fairly stress free existence and all of the togetherness we get! (By the way, we live on Vancouver Island if you ever felt your family wanted to “experience” small town Canada and you were into house swapping!*~) 🙂


Lois January 6, 2013 at 5:23 pm

I can’t remember many of the gifts I received, but I remember our trips, and the fun Friday nights that came with so much laughter that I had with my grandparents. Speaking of their home they bought it in 1966 for $5,000 paying cash for it, and lived there till they passed away.


Michaela January 6, 2013 at 8:17 pm

Hi Katie – I love reading your blog! I can’t say I’m a non-consumer like you, but I do admire your ways and attitude. I’m pretty sure we can learn from others when we are open to their perspective. I spent today getting rid of five (!) bags of clothing, keeping your closet in mind (that I saw in another post) as I purged. I do have to say it is rather freeing, and I can’t help but walk by and peek in my closet (in amazement LOL). Right now I work full time (running my own business), but I think I work hard to put my money where it counts. I don’t get out for vacation but once a year, but I’m 34 and on track (knock on wood!) to getting my 100 year old fixer-upper fixed up and paid off (paid $64K in 2000 and I only owe $18K). It might not be what everyone else is doing, but I love it. Hopefully in the future when it is paid off I’ll have time for some of those wonderful vacations and a more laid back work schedule. I guess we all have our priorities!


Mr. Everyday Dollar January 7, 2013 at 8:36 am

I always tell people who want to give me presents for Christmas or my birthday that I prefer experiences over things; I have everything that I need and even some of my wants.

If the gift is simply a bottle of wine – one of my favorites, a box of Black Box Malbec – then they can know I’ll enjoy it with a nice home cooked meal, perhaps on Friday pizza night. And that, is one of my favorite experiences.

Also, the equivalent of 20,000 U.S. dollars in 1969 is 129,499.68 in 2012, based on average annual CPI data. You should be able to sleep well knowing you’re not living in a home any more extravagant than your parents 🙂


Katy January 7, 2013 at 9:43 am

But we had to put an additional $100,000 or so into our house to make it livable.



Annie January 7, 2013 at 10:31 am

One of the reasons my husband and I don’t buy unnecessary stuff is so we can afford good experiences instead. In lieu of exchanging Christmas gifts we decided to use the money to spend more time in Chicago later this year, after his convention. (Anyone know of a really good Polish restaurant there? I’m a pierogi-addict!) My gift to my mom is a trip to a museum she would love to go to, and a nice lunch after. It’s a bonus for me as well since I get to spend the day with her.


Jen January 8, 2013 at 4:08 am

I am a very frugal lower income single parents, yet my kids do a lot of cool stuff! My eight year old is taking children’s Saturday courses at a nearby University, we plan on going on a driving trip on Spring Break, etc. People probably wonder how I pay for it all. Well, I do things like make my own laundry detergent, try very hard to limit my non-essential purchases, and I haven’t bought new clothes for myself in ten years, except to replace things that have holes in them.

I have no debt, and I see a lot of people with much higher income than mine who are struggling. It’s possible to raise a family very well on a low income!


Diane January 8, 2013 at 4:49 am

In my older age I have come to the conclusion that one quality item of clothing is far better than many ill fitting lower priced ones. Not to say I buy designer jeans, but since I don’t thrift shop anymore, I choose to add to my wardrobe one quality item at a time. I just bought an expensive pair of Levis at Macy’s and when I went to the cashier, I found out they were on sale for almost half price!


Ellie January 8, 2013 at 8:46 am

I just want to say that this attitude of Katy’s is a big reason I love this blog!

There is a lot of “frugal” stuff out there that seems to me to smack too much of puritanical self-denial – “Oh look at how little I can live on!” “Look at how much I can deny myself!” “I only own 100 things!” (“Oh yeah? Well *I* only on 50 things!”) Frankly, I’m not interested in self-denial for self-denial’s sake. The puritanical self-denying frugalists can keep their hairshirts.

To me, this blog makes it clear that being “frugal” is about choosing how to spend your time and money in the ways that are most satisfying and meaningful. You don’t get rid of all of your posessions so that you can brag about how little you own; you just streamline and mend and make do and buy second-hand so that you can have time and money to enjoy your life and your family and friends and have fun and interesting experiences!

I think Katy is great inspiration! 🙂


Melissa January 8, 2013 at 9:58 am

We certainly didn’t have a lot of money when I was a kid, but we also didn’t travel much, except camping and across the state or to visit relatives. In fact, I can remember it was a BIG DEAL when we would cross the state line into a whole new state (like….Idaho. Oooooh.) I also remember a lot of the gifts I got for my birthday, mostly because I got ONE, not dozens. I’m struggling with this right now as my son is turning 10 in a few days, and I don’t want to overdo it. I got him a gift certificate to a juggling store, but I keep feeling the need to get one more thing…


Katy January 8, 2013 at 10:58 am

Remember that your son will get gifts from others as well.



Amanda January 8, 2013 at 11:32 am

I think the love of experiences is what separates frugal and cheap people. Cheap people will not spend money on anything. Frugal people forgo things and income for quality time with those they love (or whatever they are into).


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