As my husband and I have gone along together over the past twenty years, one thing has become increasingly apparent to us: we spend too much money on things that don’t matter and not enough money on things that would truly increase our life satisfaction. We try not to dwell too much on money we’ve thrown away on pointless items because…well, it’s depressing. (I mean, seriously. A panini machine? Like we were going to be whipping up Cuban sandwiches on a daily basis? What the hell were we thinking?) We both agree, however, that the best money we’ve ever spent was for traveling or taking classes or participating in events. This is a very real phenomenon. Scientific research has proven that our satisfaction in life is tied more to experiences than possessions. A new possession might make us feel good in the beginning but, as soon as we adapt to it, the thrill is gone and that item becomes just another thing to take care of. As many couples our age are settling into bigger, nicer homes, we have spent long hours discussing our desire to downsize, to reduce the collection of crap we use once a year, to unload our baggage, and to make room in our budget for the things in life that stretch our minds and not our square footage.
Now, I say all this as if it’s going to be an easy transition for us. The truth is the exact opposite. We are long-time early adapters. When the new iPhone comes out, we’ve got it. Our thirteen year old son has already begun asking for the iWatch. We realize that as parents we’ve set a bad precedent, and we’ve got a long road ahead of us if we want to teach our children to be happy with what they have and to value life experience more than shiny, new toys. But we’re heading that direction, and we’re committed to proving to our children that it’s the best way to live.
To that end, my husband jetted off with our youngest to California this past weekend for a three-day, father-son trip made possible by a small bump in our income tax refund and my decision not to use it for a selfish, solo beach vacation. Luke had been telling us (for about six years) that he wanted to visit Legoland and, as he approached his 12th birthday next month, I realized he might just outgrow it before we managed to get him there. Deciding I could not let that happen, I booked a surprise trip for them. Last Friday, Steve and Luke headed to the airport bright and early to board a cheap, Spirit airlines flight to San Diego for Luke’s first trip to California. Over the three days, father and son visited the San Diego Zoo, Legoland, and the beaches in La Jolla and Carlsbad. Luke took his turn piloting the USS Midway. They enjoyed a harbor cruise. They walked on the beach and nearly stepped on sea lions that were resting in the sand. They skipped chain restaurants and sampled local cafes and coffee shops. As they went about their days, I received texts and photos. Each time a photo arrived, my heart smiled. Even though I wasn’t there with them, I couldn’t help but feel gratitude for their opportunity to experience new things together. And while the Lego set Luke procured at Legoland will eventually be broken apart and end in pieces in a large, plastic, storage bin in the basement, this trip will remain with him throughout his lifetime and will hopefully inspire him to reach continually for new experiences and to voyage to different places.
When I awoke on Monday morning after their late-night return, I found a small treat they had purchased for me in California, a $5 token of their gratitude for my unilateral decision to send them on a trip they hadn’t planned on. The note, written by my thoughtful, dyslexic son, read: “Dear Mom, I love you and I am so greatful [sic] that you spent your trip money for me and dad to go to San Diego and please except [sic] this Doggy pen.” If I’d needed any proof that our decision to move from possessions toward experiences was the right choice, this was it.
Our sons are growing up so quickly. We’re inches away from the day when it will be woefully uncool to hang out with Mom and Dad, so we’re focusing now on using our time with our sons wisely. At the end of May, I will be taking our oldest son on a mother-son adventure to celebrate our birthdays. We too will be heading to California for three days so we can experience the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a place Joe has talked about for years. We have no plans other than to visit the aquarium and to drive along the coast to enjoy the ocean we are sorely lacking in Colorado. I’m looking forward to living in the moment with my teenage son as we both make discoveries on our own adventure. Hopefully, when the trip is over and only a memory, we will be able to see our lives with a new perspective, one that will remind us that it is not he who has the most toys in the end that wins.
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” ~ T.S. Eliot