Sending someone on an African safari, staying in an Irish castle or going to Coachella makes them happier in the long run than a physical object.
The perfect gift isn’t something you can wrap.
More people want memorable experiences over the latest iPhone or designer bag — and their friends and family are more than happy to oblige by booking a table at a favorite restaurant, fueling an adrenaline rush with a skydiving session — or dropping more than $13,000 to go on an African safari by horseback, which Janice Holly Booth splurged on for her beau in 2015.
“I’d been a pretty terrible gift-giver, uninspired, whereas T.J. had always given me thoughtful, generous, surprising gifts. So one Christmas I decided to blow his mind,” Booth, a 58-year-old author and travel writer, told Moneyish. “It was worth it for the memories and the once-in-a-lifetime interaction with the wild animals,”
Now she surprises him with adventures all of the time, like a segway tour or ziplining trip for $25-$75, or overnight getaways for $150-$300.
“We both had accumulated so much stuff in our lives, much of which we barely used, that we decided having experiences together would be more fun, more meaningful, and make us way more interesting at cocktail parties!” she said. “And I do think it’s worth the cost and trouble to organize, because it’s a way to show the person you love that you’ve been thinking about what will make them happy not just on one day, but for many days.”
That’s why Ricky Marton, 26 from Florida exclusively gives experiences now, such as skydiving trips for $120, or an hour in a sensory deprivation tank for $50. “So many of my friends and family have found themselves deep in a rut in life in which they hardly step out of,” he told Moneyish. “Giving them not only an idea, but a reason and big shove out of their comfort zone towards something they would normally not embark on is absolutely priceless in my eyes.
“These gifts tend to be slightly more expensive than a shirt or video game, yes, but well worth it,” added Marton. “The three people I took skydiving have told me it was one of the most amazing things they’ve ever done. Can’t put a price on that!
And while Kianna Watler was wild about tearing into toys and tech for birthdays and holidays when she was growing up, the University of Kentucky senior’s tastes changed once she went to college. “I’ve started to ask my parents for experiences rather than gifts; mainly concerts,” she told Moneyish, such as asking her parents to send her to Coachella for her 21st birthday last year. ”This was the time of my life, and I think I’m much happier than I would’ve been with more clothes or some other typical gift.”
She’s right. Research shows that sharing an experience with someone can make them happier in the long run over giving them something like a purse or smartphone. Cornell University found that customer satisfaction from a material purchases decreases rather quickly, which is why you have to upgrade to yet another new iPhone each year, or a kid loses interest in a new toy within days, if not hours. But the joy from a pleasant experience such as a painting class or seeing a favorite band lives on.
“Things like a new material purchase make us happy initially, but very quickly we adapt to it, and it doesn’t bring us all that much joy,” wrote study author Thomas Gilovich, professor of psychology at Cornell. “Other kinds of expenditures, such as experiential purchases, don’t seem as subject to adaptation.”
And there is also evidence that experiential gifts make the giver and receiver feel closer and more connected. That’s why Sydney Masters booked an all-inclusive trip to Kilkea Castle in Ireland for her husband’s birthday last year at about $1,000 apiece. They spent two nights being treated like royalty on their Irish adventure, including breakfast and high tea daily, a four-course dinner in the castle, plus horseback riding, skeet shooting and archery. And now he’s taking her out to a birthday dinner at a chateau in La Loire, France in return.
“The best thing about gift experiences like this is that you can enjoy them together,” Masters, 50, told Moneyish.
This is all part of the expanding experience economy, where U.S. spending on activities such as spectator events, amusements parks, dining in restaurants and traveling has grown more than 1.5 times faster than overall personal-consumption spending, according to a recent McKinsey report, and almost four times faster than spending on objects. And only one-third of 2017 holiday spending went toward tangible gifts, according to Deloitte, as 27% of people surveyed said they preferred giving experiences, and 24% said they planned to host or attend holiday parties instead of doing a traditional gift exchange.
That extends to celebrities. “Shameless” actress Emmy Rossum told New York magazine that the best gift she’s ever received was sushi lessons, while material girl Kim Kardashian revealed to People that trips are her favorite gift at the moment, like when husband Kanye West whisked her away to Utah for a weekend getaway. “Material things don’t make me happy anymore, but experiences do,” she said.
Millennials are infamous for favoring doing stuff over getting stuff, with 3 out of 4 saying they would rather spend their money on an experience rather than buying something desirable, according to a 2017 Eventbrite report. But they’re not alone. The survey also found that 4 out of 5 Americans (78%) had attended a live event like a concert or beer festival in the past year.
“It’s possible that we are in a post-materialistic world where we have enough stuff, and now people are focusing more on acquiring experiences,” said Dr. Joseph K. Goodman, an Ohio State University professor, who has co-authored a paper on “When Consumers Prefer to Give Material Gifts Instead of Experiences.”
“The other possibility is that people are looking for more unique gifts,” he also told Moneyish, “and we know more research that experiences are more unique and less comparable; two sweaters can be compared easily, but two vacations are much harder to compare, and have their own unique qualities and benefits.”
The experience economy also feeds into decluttering culture. As more people embrace Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” and a 2015 survey found more than half (54%) of Americans are overwhelmed with clutter, the last thing they want is to cram their homes with even more crap.
“Making memories is much more interesting than more stuff,” said Masters. “How many lipsticks, scarves, socks, perfumes, etcetera can one person have?”
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