Adventures in Experientialism: Why I Gave Up Buying Things to Travel

honduras

This is a guest post by my friend Anthony Ongaro.

It was a dark and stormy February night, or at least a cold Minnesota winter night, if I recall correctly, when it all came together. It had been a long time since I had traveled anywhere. Winters are long here in Minneapolis and it was definitely starting to get to me. Months of below freezing temperatures tend to make a person go stir crazy after a while.

Traveling has always been one of my favorite things to do, but in recent years it just seemed like I could never quite pull it together to go on fun adventures with friends and family. The weird part was that I wasn’t in debt, yet always seemed to have barely enough money at the end of the month. No particular purchases stood out as being expensive or particularly high in amount, so I was struggling to figure out where all the money was going.

Before that fateful February night, opportunity after opportunity had been missed, my friends going on epic adventures while I continuously lived on the edge of financial responsibility. What was it that was eating into my finances so deeply? I worked full-time for an investment bank and wasn’t making six figures, but made enough money to live comfortably. It really shouldn’t be that much of a stretch, right? That’s when I decided to dig a little bit deeper.

After reflecting on my spending, I discovered that 95% of my non-food purchases were made through Amazon via Prime, the membership for free two-day shipping. To be fair, the site provides incredible convenience when it comes to one-click ordering. On top of that, I figured I was saving money and time by avoiding the checkout aisles and commutes to various stores. Toothbrushes, bluetooth USB dongles, various audio cables, I’d get it all on Amazon. I figured that my order history would be a good place to start, so I pulled about four years worth of purchases from the site.

Wow.

Looking at a spreadsheet with over 350 purchased items in it completely blew my mind. There it was. There was my extra money, $25 at a time, spread across four years of constant cardboard boxes arriving at my doorstep. Reviewing further, it became clear that there were no purchases of resounding significance, either. Whether $10 or $20, small items made up the majority of the purchases on the list. It was right then, on that freezing cold night that it hit me like a ton of bricks. I was giving up my ability to travel and spend quality time with loved ones for countless insignificant impulsive purchases made without much thought. The total damage done in four years? Let’s just say that I could have easily purchased seven or more international round trip flights for what I spent online during that time. I felt sick to my stomach.

Over the following few months, I made changes that had a significant impact. I ended my online shopping days with a quasi-shopping ban and took steps to make purchasing via one-click a little more difficult. The result was less stress, more savings, and less clutter around my home. The problem was that the excitement that came with those life improvements soon faded and I found myself looking for more. Perhaps a new challenge, if you will. Finally, 2015 rolled around the bend and I decided to take things a step further: I’d make my first ever experientialist travel pledge.

To me, experientialism is very simple. It is the philosophy of prioritizing experiences over the acquisition of physical possessions. Based on my desire to travel more and own less, I found that it perfectly encompassed the lifestyle I had been lacking. My new challenge would be this: Embrace a fully experientialist life and travel every single month in 2015. Twelve months, twelve trips throughout the year. We’re over half of the way through the year and I’ve had some amazing experiences so far. I visited friends in Los Angeles and Chicago, attended a bachelor party in Las Vegas, performed a wedding ceremony in the U.S. Virgin Islands, attended a wedding in Boston, did non-profit photography work in Honduras, visited family in Louisville, spent the weekend in Manhattan and more.

It may seem like I am overdoing it a bit, and you may be correct in thinking so. It has been an incredible year so far, but of course I’ve learned plenty along the way. My initial goal was to spend the same amount of money on travel this year as I had spent on purchasing physical things on an average year before. It was an experiment to exchange my spending 1:1 to see if it would make me happier, feel more fulfilled and provide the desired lifestyle shift that I was looking for. So far, it has accomplished everything that I had hoped it would. I’ve pushed myself to find great travel deals, I’ve slept on friend’s couches when possible and did a fair bit of travel hacking to make a lot of it possible. I’ve enjoyed every single moment of hopping on planes, saying yes to more adventures and buying a lot less stuff. What I have realized though is, despite this massive shift in philosophy and lifestyle, a balanced budget is still absolutely critical.

Instead of spending my disposable income purchasing things, I am now spending the same amount on experiences. I am happier and having more fun than ever, but still not saving as much money as I would like to. At this point, I am adjusting my budget to compensate for the fact that I need to make up for my missed goals earlier in the year. Weekends being devoured by flights and wandering around new cities makes keeping up with work, writing and other responsibilities even more difficult. Minimalism has absolutely helped on that front but, at the end of the day, most of us still need to clean the kitchen after we cook and eat.

Despite my shortcomings, I know that taking on this challenge was the right decision and I will continue through the end of the year. It really does feel as though I’m solidifying my decision to live an experientialist lifestyle in a big way. When I started out, I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect, nor the destination for any of my trips. In fact, I still don’t know where I’m going in October or November. But I’m looking forward to fully reflecting on the experience and sharing what I learn upon its completion.

Whatever passions we pursue, I’ve found that we must also seek balance throughout our lives. Living on less than our means, saving for the future, and creating opportunities to have experiences like this on a longer-term basis are all incredibly important. My biggest takeaway is that if we’re going to spend our hard-earned money, let’s make sure to spend it in ways that bring us the most lasting joy and fulfillment.

For me, changing the way that I spend discretionary funds has made all the difference. I’m confident that I will always hold dear these fantastic memories of trips and the time shared with friends and family. On the other hand, I don’t remember much about the contents of those brown cardboard boxes that have arrived over the years.

Anthony Ongaro is the author of Break the Twitch where he helps others explore ways to live a more intentional life. You can follow Break the Twitch on Twitter and Facebook.