Invest in Lifestyle, Not Experience

Clay Ratliff
4 min readMay 3, 2023

They say buy experiences, not things. They’re thinking too small.

Photo by Kristel Hayes on Unsplash

You can’t buy happiness

Everyone has talked about it; buying experiences, not things brings more happiness. Studies prove this. Gurus, life coaches, and doctors will all tell you this. Buy experiences and the memories created will make you happier than the same money spent on things.

I have two problems with this

  1. The people saying this have either never been broke or they’re making some basic incorrect assumptions.
  2. If they think that new experiences buy happiness, then they’re not doing it very efficiently and therefore wasting money.

Never been broke

I know from personal experience that when you’re in a financial position that the choice becomes, prepare a nice meal at home with someone you love or make your rent, making your rent brings you a lot of long-lasting happiness with your choice. I know at least one person who when given a choice between buying an experience, e.g., taking a date to the waterpark for a day, or using that same money to ensure that they can make the rent and they and their kids all have a roof over their heads, they took the experience.

Any guesses as to how long they got joy from that purchase? Spoiler alert; right up until they got the eviction notice and had to find a new place to live for themselves and their kids.

I’m all for buying experiences, and I agree that it can generate more happiness than buying a thing. But for that statement to be true, you must be in a position where buying that experience does not come at the cost of fundamental needs.

Buying an experience? You’re doing it wrong.

My second issue is that the advice I typically see is all about buying an experience. They talk about using money to purchase a romantic meal with a significant other, go bungee jumping, or take a hike through a national forest, and while all of those sound fantastic, at least to me, they also seem a bit short-sighted.

Why would I spend that money to have a singular experience when I could spend it to change my life in such a way that the new experiences were self-sustaining? Some might be good, some might be bad, but they would all represent a unique experience that I would remember for a very long time, and even the bad ones would eventually turn into war stories that our friends would laugh at with us.

Don’t think in terms of buying an experience, think in terms of buying an experiment that leads to more experiences. If you find something you enjoy, buy a set of experiences around it, or better yet, a lifestyle.

Taking a cooking class is great! That’s a week or more of experiences that you can continue to use for the rest of your life. But what if you really enjoyed it? What if you decided to make it a more substantial part of your life? What would that look like? Going to culinary school? Becoming a chef? Opening a restaurant? Becoming a part-time food critic? Writing a blog about cooking? Or maybe it was just a great class and it’s time to try another experiment.

For my wife and I, it was about changing our entire lifestyle. Rather than continue living in a community we were realizing we’d fallen out of love with for multiple reasons, we threw fiscal reason and safety out the window, sold our house, bought a sailboat (with very limited experience), and moved on board.

Maybe for you, that’s giving up the apartment and traveling across the country living in hostels for a year, or moving to a foreign country. Maybe you always wanted to learn to scuba dive and after doing so discover that you want to become an instructor.

To say that it’s been a new experience would be an understatement and it has definitely not been an unending stream of pleasant surprises, but it has been something that we’ve found to be challenging, intimidating, and incredibly satisfying. We’ll get the joy and pain of these experiences for at least a couple of more years even if we decide ultimately that this lifestyle isn’t for us. In the meantime, while the upfront cost is no joke, we get the benefit of losing things like utility bills while gaining an appreciation of a lifestyle that is more complicated in many ways and yet somehow simpler.

The Bottom Line

Treat every new experience as the beginning of a potential change in your lifestyle. Don’t have the mindset of one-and-done. Look beyond the benefits of that one experience and try to see how it can change your life a month, six months, or a year down the road. Maybe it won’t, and if not that doesn’t mean it isn’t an experience worth having, but if you’re not looking for it, you may miss out on the greatest part of your life.



Clay Ratliff

Looking for our dreams in the second half of our lives as a novice sailors as we learn to live on our floating home SV Fearless