Sometimes, spending brings a bigger return than saving

Carl Richards
Elena Ryabitskaya | Getty Images

Life experiences give you an incalculable return on investment. Every. Single. Time. So why is it so hard for us to spend money on them?

The reason for me is often that experiences tend to feel like an extravagant expenditure of money, time and energy. Let me give you an example.

My wife and I had a chance to leave our kids at home for a few days and go on a sea kayaking trip. The trip we planned was in an unbelievably beautiful part of the world. It would be the first time in over six months that we could do something without the kids.

Sounds amazing, right? But then I started adding numbers. It would be $250 for the kayak rental, then a few hundred for food. And the little inn where we wanted to stay was expensive. Before long, our invaluable trip had a tangible value, in the neighborhood of $1,000.

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For three days? No way!

I spent a few days thinking (O.K., worrying) about this expense. Was it responsible? Did we have the money? If we invested that $1,000 for 20 years and earned 7.5 percent, it would grow to more than $4,200.

Eventually, we chose to go. And, predictably enough, it took all of seven minutes on the water on the first day before I thought: "$1,000? For this? What an incredible value!"

Each time I try to do this kind of math, I always run into the same problem. Experiences are incalculable. Invaluable. Priceless. So no matter how hard I try, I just can't get them to fit into my calculator. So good luck with your equation.

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If you don't have the money or aren't certain you can pay any debt back quickly if you borrow a bit to do the thing, the decision may get easier. The solution to the equation is probably this: No.

If so, I feel for you, as I've been there myself and stayed there intermittently for years.

But once we got out there in the kayak on that crystal-clear water, all I could think about was how happy my wife and I were as we were enjoying that experience together. So, ask me now, was it worth it? Let me just save you a lot of time and energy, and give you the answer to that messy equation: Spend the money!

Do you have something you want to do with someone you love, and the money to pay for it, and the only reason you're not doing it is that you have this nagging feeling that you should be saving the money for some vague goal beyond the basic ones you have already articulated for yourself? Spend the money! Then, do it again. And again. And the next time? Spend the money!

Did I mention spend the money?

If it feels as if I'm trying to drill this message into your brain, it's because I am. After all, what else is the money there for? O.K., for when you get sick, for when you get old, for when your kids need some financial help. I know. For a million good reasons.

But you already have every "real" financial advisor and financial pornography network under the sun telling you to save. Just think of that as one side of the coin: Save for tomorrow. I'm here to tell you not to forget about the other side: Spend for tomorrow.

Because it's not just money you're going to need in the distant future. You're also going to need a lifetime of priceless memories and invaluable experiences to remind you what a great life you've lived.

I can promise you this: If you find yourself looking back one day, only to realize you have no such memories, you'll be doing a very different calculation.

This article originally appeared on The New York Times.

Carl Richards, a certified financial planner, is the author of "The Behavior Gap" and "The One-Page Financial Plan." His sketches and essays appear weekly.

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