My husband and I are about to celebrate our fifth anniversary. We saved a little bit of money; I want to use it to go away. He wants to use it to buy a couch. We’re pretty deadlocked. I know no one’s “right,” but is there an objective way to figure out the best move to make to celebrate?
— Looking for a Seat … on a Plane
Dear Looking for a Seat,
First off, you and your husband are both right — both a couch and a trip would bring you happiness. Buying material things can boost your satisfaction, and research shows experiences can lift your mood. But the best option for you depends on a few factors, including your current seating situation. Are you currently sitting on the floor watching Netflix? If so, then a couch could significantly enhance your daily happiness. But if you already have a couch, and are upgrading from a hand-me-down to a nicer one, then I would recommend continuing to save so you can buy the couch in the future, and booking a trip now.
Here’s why: For a relationship-commemorating purchase, it’s good to look for something that will create memories and reinforce positive feelings about the relationship. Yes, a couch can do that. But the happiness it provides won’t be as intense as what you could get with a vacation.
At the end of the day, no matter how beautiful it is, a couch is a functional place to sit. After a while, you’ll get used to the novelty of having a new one. You’ll likely still use the couch the same way you did the old couch: for curling up and watching Netflix.
A trip, on the other hand, is all novelty. It’s time off from work, doing things you don’t usually do, and making memories that are distinct from your usual hangout nights.
You’ve probably heard that people appreciate experiences more than things, and that finding applies in this case. After five years of marriage, you’ve gotten over the excitement of the wedding, living together as a married couple, and building a partnership. It’s a great time to inject some excitement and newness into that connection, and a couch can’t necessarily do that.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be one or the other. Is there a way to put some funds away to jumpstart saving for the couch, and then use the rest for a trip? It also sounds like this can be a great time for both of you to touch base on what you value. Maybe you can find ways to cut corners on the trip — for example, perhaps neither of you are so big on luxe resorts, but amazing meals out are essential — so you’re not starting your couch savings account with a $0 balance. And maybe you can also cut corners on the couch purchase, too.
Putting price tags on the important stuff can help you figure out how much money you need for each. Who knows, you may even be able to have a seat on a new couch and on a plane.
Elizabeth Dunn, Ph.D. is a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia who researches how time, money, and technology shape human happiness. She is also the scientific advisor for Happy Money, a financial company that combines psychology and money to help people live happier lives. Have a question for Liz? Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org and check back every Tuesday for her next column.