Less is More: Improving your relationship with the “less stuff, more experiences” strategy

“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.”

Hans Hofmann

Oversaturated. That’s how it can feel once the holidays have ended. And now that the last gift has been unwrapped, the last big meal cooked, and the relatives have gone back home, you might want to ask yourself this question… “What, of all of that, helped me be more of the person I want to be and helped me have the kind of meaningful relationships I want to have?” Did that one extra present you raced around to get really bring you and your loved one closer? Did that pricey bottle of bubbly you bought bring lasting happiness as you ushered in a new year? When you look back on it all, what is it that you’ll remember from the holidays?


I know for me, I’ll remember my little niece climbing into the small bed in the tiny cottage we rented at the beach, snuggling tightly in between my partner, our two dogs, and me. I won’t remember what we bought her for Christmas or what she bought us. And while I’ll soon forget the present my mother bought me, I will remember sitting in front of the fireplace after everyone had gone to bed watching “A Christmas Carol” with her for the 10,000th time. Looking back on it, though I tend to spend a lot of my resources (i.e. time, money, energy) on the “stuff” of my life, the things that are really meaningful to me tend to be the “experiences” of my life, which often require few resources at all.


The Huffington Post recently came out with their Best TED Talks of 2011 and on that list Graham Hill’s talk entitled Less Stuff: More Happiness.  His very brief talk connected with something I’ve been thinking about recently -- how can I live a richer, fuller, and more joyful life through having less “stuff”? When I reflect on what has brought me closer to those I love in this world, at the top of that list are almost exclusively experiences we’ve shared together. So, as a theme for this new year (“theme” sounds so much more enticing to me than “resolution!”) I have decided to focus on putting more of my resources on sharing experiences with my loved ones and less resources on accumulating more stuff for me or them.


Here are some tips to help improve your relationship through having less “stuff”:

  1. Give gifts of experiences, not stuff: Make a commitment with your loved one that for all those events when you tend to buy each other gifts (birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, etc.), you’re going to spend your resources on giving each other experiences rather than material things. These experiences could be a wonderful meal together or a weekend getaway or getting to hear your favorite concert together. Anything that doesn’t include accumulating more “things” could count.
  2. Have a purge competition: Choose a day when you and your loved one(s) go through your house and see how much stuff you can get rid of. There’s a great list of local non-profit organizations (Portland, Oregon area) where you can donate anything from clothes, to books, to electronic equipment. Whoever has the most stuff to get rid of at the end of the day wins. Just remember that the “prize” for the winner probably shouldn’t be more stuff, but rather, maybe a nice meal, having the dishes done for them for a whole week, or maybe just bragging rights!
  3. Track your “experiences” versus “stuff” budget: If your household maintains a budget that you monitor periodically, you might want to consider adding a category to distinguish how much money you are spending on “stuff” versus “experiences”. You might even want to set some guidelines in your family about how much of your budget you want to spend on accumulating more things as opposed to having more experiences.
  4. Watch Graham Hill’s “Less Stuff: More Happiness”  talk with your loved one and come up with a plan of how you can devote more of your relationship resources towards having meaningful experiences together and less towards accumulating more stuff.

With this strategy, you may just find that you come to the end of 2012 feeling a little less oversaturated and with a few more wonderful  memories of times shared over the course of the year.

And if you’re looking for more relationship tips and resources, check out our relationships resources page.

Jenna is a clinical psychologist who specializes in working with people who struggle with relationship and intimacy difficulties and with those who have a trauma history. Her research focuses on developing compassion-based interventions targeting stigma, shame, and chronic self-criticism.
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