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Kick Your Obsession With Stuff

we think stuff will make us happy, and when it doesn't we feel disappointed
❝Society tells us the only thing that matters is matter - the only things that count are the things that can be counted.❞ -Laurence G. Boldt

I'm reading an interesting story about a successful author who attends a party given by a billionaire. The story goes that the author, Joseph Heller - author of Catch-22 - was at this party with his friend. The friend wonders how Joe feels that the billionaire made more money yesterday than Catch-22 has made and its entire lifetime. Joe said that he feels fine because he's got something that the billionaire will never have. His friend, puzzled, wonders what he could have that the billionaire doesn't.

Joe says, "I have the knowledge that I have enough.”

I'm fascinated by the story because it's more profound to me than it seems on the surface. It tells me that Joe Heller was ahead of his time. Joe knew how much was enough and was comfortable and confident with that. The rest of society wants to be the billionaire. They want to gain more and more, hoping that it will eventually make them happy.

But I've come to realize that the Joe Hellers of the world are happier than the rest of us. The question becomes, how can we become more like Joe Heller?


Without consideration, our default mode is to pursue things and stuff. It's our default mode because it's so easy. We know exactly how it feels to experience financial stress, but we don't know how it feels for other people because money is a taboo topic that we don't talk about. It's easy for us to look around and see other people acting happy, and so we replicate what they are doing. From the outside looking in, it looks like they are happy because they have more stuff than we do or have better stuff than we do.

So we naturally believe that the secret to happiness is to seek out and acquire more, better, and bigger things. The problem is that as we work hard to collect more and more things, we don't find the happiness we were expecting.

we are always on a quest for more stuff

Instead of focusing on happiness as our beacon, we tend to focus on the collection of stuff. This is because money is an easy measuring stick. It shouldn't be that way, but that's how it is.

the belief that more stuff will make us happy leads to a never ending quest for more


It is a helpful exercise to occasionally pause and ask yourself why you are spending your money the way you are. Be honest with yourself. Are you spending money to raise your social standing so you can get a boost of dopamine? Or are you spending your money in a way that will make your life easier and happier?

There are a couple of terms worth mentioning here, conspicuous spending and inconspicuous spending.

Conspicuous spending is spending in a way that other people will notice. This is not necessarily to say that the reason we spend our money is to get the attention of other people, but it is a byproduct of that. For example, most of us in the United States need a car, so we buy ourselves a car. That is an example of conspicuous spending because, regardless of why we bought it, people will notice that we bought a car. Conspicuous spending becomes problematic when most of our spending is for external reasons. Instead of buying a car for a reasonable price that will get us from point A to point B, we buy (or lease) expensive cars to impress other people. Conspicuous spending, in the end, is not a source of happiness.

Inconspicuous spending is spending money in a way that nobody will notice. Again, this is not necessarily the case that you were trying to hide your spending from anybody, just that these types of purchases aren't noticeable. For example, you go to the grocery store and buy dinner. What you create for dinner in your kitchen is not something other people will see (unless, of course, you posted on social media). When done correctly, inconspicuous spending can make your life easier and bring you a sense of happiness and peace.

Inconspicuous spending is better for your happiness, but conspicuous spending increases your social status. This drive to partake in status signaling happens almost automatically, but it's a habit worth trying to get rid of.

conspicuous spending is status spending, inconspicuous spending brings happiness


Without spending time to figure out what's important to us, it's easy to fall into the trap of conspicuous spending. It's too easy to jump on the hedonic treadmill. The default mode for many people is to work hard to get to a spot that they think will make them happier, only to find that the happiness was fleeting. Then, they quickly set new goals thinking that that's where the happiness lies.

Few people know how much is enough for them. Enough is different for everyone, but it should be inward-looking, not outward-facing.

how much is enough


The endless pursuit of stuff is what gets us into the trap of conspicuous spending and hedonic adaptation. This blind pursuit of stuff does not bring happiness.

Once you find how much is enough, or define what kind of lifestyle you are comfortable with, you can detach from the endless pursuit of more. You get to realize that the effort and time you spend trying to get more is better spent in areas that will make your life better and bring you and your family more happiness.

Getting more intentional about your spending comes with the confidence to break the cycle.

spend your resources on things that will make you happy


So if stuff doesn't bring happiness, what does? Again, as with most things in personal finance, this will be different for everyone because everyone has different values.

Still, some things are more likely to bring happiness than others, namely time and experiences. There are three aspects to our purchases that can bring happiness or detract from it. The first is the anticipation of the purchase. The second is the experience itself. And the third is the memory of the purchase.

When you buy stuff, you have some anticipation of buying a bigger TV, a nicer house, or a more expensive car. You might even have a good experience of making the purchase, although it is a fleeting experience. The downside with stuff is that you retain no memory of this experience or purchase. You don't get to take advantage of euphoric recall - the tendency to remember things in a more positive light - because you have to see it every day. You have to see it become outdated. You have to see new models come out. You have to see other people buy better versions. You have to see it deteriorate.

Experiences, on the other hand, still have the same (or better) anticipation aspect. The experiences themselves are richer, and you get to take advantage of having good memories. There's often a social component to these experiences, which adds to your happiness as well. You will be able to look back on your memories and enjoy the times you had. That's not the case with stuff.

Buying time allows you to have more experiences. The old saying is that we all get the same amount of time, which is true, but how we spend that time is up to us. You can spend your time on chores and tasks that you don't enjoy, or you can spend it in areas that enrich your life. Paying to have somebody else do tasks and chores that you don't want to do and don't enjoy doing frees up your time to be spent elsewhere. For example, if you don't like raking leaves in the fall and it takes a lot of your time, you can hire somebody to do that and read a book instead or go for a run.

stuff won't make you happy - spend money on time and experiences instead

Without noticing it, you have likely entered into the task of pursuing more things. Noticing that you've done this and breaking the spell helps you be more intentional with your spending and helps you chase happiness instead of things.

What can you do today to detach from the pursuit of stuff?

You only have one life. Live intentionally.

Until next time,


If you know someone else who would benefit from reading this, please share it with them. Spread the word, if you think there's a word to spread.

Related Money Health® Reading
References and Influences

Ariely, Dan & Jeff Kreisler: Dollars and Sense

Ben-Shahar, Tal: Choose the Life You Want

Ben-Shahar, Tal: Happier

Haidt, Jonathan: The Happiness Hypothesis

Happiness Lab: Demonic Possessions

Klontz, Brad, Edward Horwitz & Ted Klontz: Money Mammoth

Klontz, Brad & Ted Klontz: Mind Over Money

McKeown, Greg: Essentialism

Millburn, Joshua Fields & Ryan Nicodemus: Essential

Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at while writing this post. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced by thinking and writing. It's very likely that I left something out. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.



About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFA, CFP, FBS, CFT-I, CIPM is a speaker, writer, and coach specializing in financial psychology, meaning and valued living, resilience, and mindfulness.


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