THIS PAST SATURDAY, we visited my daughter in Philadelphia, where she just bought her first home. The trip included moving furniture, heading to Lowe’s, spackling walls and fixing a toilet seat. We also stopped by Ikea, where Hannah bought two sofas, one for $399 and the other for $379.
Think about that: less than $400 for a sofa. In a major city, for that same $400, you might get a 90-minute visit by a plumber. Or dinner for eight people at a moderately priced restaurant. Or an hour with a lawyer. Put that way, the Ikea sofas were a bargain. They might not have been top quality. But my wife and I agreed that we’d happily have them in our living room.
All this highlights the yawning gap between the cost of mass produced goods and the cost of items that involve personalized service. For $99, you can buy a 7-inch Kindle Fire HD tablet with 8GB of memory that’ll allow you to cruise the web, play games, watch videos, listen to music and more. That $99 would have covered just 0.3% of the commission I paid last year when a real-estate agent sold my Manhattan apartment.
There’s an unfortunate aspect to this: As I’ve noted in other pieces, research suggests we get more happiness from dollars spent on experiences rather than possessions. We quickly adapt to material improvements in our lives. But experiences—a vacation, dinner out with friends, a concert—offer not only enjoyable moments, but also weeks of eager anticipation beforehand and fond memories after.
Problem is, because of the personalized service that’s often involved, experiences can be costly. I love eating out. It’s a great way to enjoy time with friends and family without the distraction of cooking and cleaning dishes. But it’s also expensive.
What to do? Two pieces of advice: First, if you’re going to buy possessions, with the limited happiness that they deliver, favor cheap ones and be leery of expensive choices, with new luxury cars topping the list. Second, plan for experiences far ahead of time, so you have months of pleasurable anticipation, and try to make the experiences memorable, so you’re likely to recall them for a long time after.