Living with credit

Spending and couples: Experiences and time-savers are great but costly

Kelly Dilworth

As our finances get tighter and more stressful, my husband and I are trying to be more strategic with our spending.

For years, we’ve followed the advice of happiness researchers and spent most of our discretionary money on memorable experiences, such as concerts and theater visits, rather than on stuff that just collects dust in our apartment.

We’ve also invested money in conveniences and other time-saving purchases in an effort to buy more family time.

But as the amount of money we have to spend continues to shrink, we’ve started to question whether these pricey purchases are really worth it.

Until recently, we felt justified spending money on feel-good experiences and pricey time-savers because they genuinely made us feel happier and more satisfied with our lives.

Research shows that the money we spend on building memories and creating more time for one another is not only beneficial for our personal happiness, it’s even good for our relationship since it cuts down on stress and makes us feel more connected.

Research on spending and happiness

According to a working paper released this year by Harvard Business School, for example, spending money on time-saving purchases, such as cleaning services and convenience items, tends to foster strong relationships by giving couples more time to unwind and reconnect.

In addition, time-savers minimize the number of fights couples have over chores and other responsibilities, the researchers say.

“Across seven studies with over 3,000 individuals in committed relationships, we found consistent evidence that time-saving purchases promoted relationship satisfaction,” researchers wrote in the study.

Similarly, additional research has found that cultivating a less materialistic attitude and focusing on experiences instead of things can also boost relationships by making people feel happier and more committed to those they love.

A February 2018 study published in the Journal of Family and Economic issues, for example, found that a materialistic attitude can poison people’s perception of marriage and make them feel less satisfied.

Instead of focusing attention on material wants, happiness researchers say that couples are better off spending money on experiences that will make their lives feel more fulfilling and foster quality time with loved ones.

The problem for many couples (including us), though, is that these types of purchases are often incredibly expensive – especially if you’re investing significant amounts of money just to carve out more time for happy experiences.

Questioning our spending priorities

As our budget gets tighter, my husband and I have started to second guess our discretionary spending and have wondered whether we’re spending too much money on conveniences and other purchases that have traditionally made us happier – but also poorer.

For example, now that our grocery budget is smaller, I’ve started to wonder whether I should stop buying precut fruits and veggies, microwaveable rice and other shortcut foods.

What’s more important to our family’s happiness and well-being: time spent together after a long workday, or a home-cooked meal that took a while to make, but doesn’t squeeze our household budget?

Spending less time on food prep puts me in a better mood since I don’t feel so burdened by making dinner. But the higher costs are also making grocery shopping more stressful.

At the same time, I’ve begun to wonder lately whether my husband and I could stand to be a bit more materialistic with our purchases.

Spending money on experiences has made our lives richer and more fulfilling, but it’s come at the expense of other household purchases, such as presentable clothes and other items that are starting to show their age.

I work from home and so I can get away with wearing clothes I’ve owned since college. But when my husband recently attended a job interview with a belt so tattered the leather-like film was stripping away I began to seriously question our priorities.

We’ve both always prided ourselves on being nonmaterialistic, but perhaps we’d have been better off spending $40 on a quality belt than a date night at the movies.

Finding a better balance

I don’t necessarily regret the money we’ve spent so far on memorable events or on last-minute takeout on nights when we’re exhausted. Happiness researchers are right: Those purchases really do make us happier and foster a more harmonious relationship.

But going forward, I do think we need to be more balanced with our spending. We also need to work harder to seek out experiences that don’t cost so much money and try to find time-saving workarounds that are cheaper. The last thing our marriage needs is for financial stress to cause us to fight more over money.

Spending money to buy time should help relieve our stress, not add to it. At the same time, more money in the bank won’t make us feel happier or more fulfilled, but it will make us less anxious.

See related: To boost happiness, buy yourself the gift of time, Couples sharing finances: There are apps for that, Those on a tight budget choose material goods over experiences, Experiences? Great. But sometimes, we need stuff

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