When It Comes to Travel, Money Actually Can Buy You Happiness

Turns out experiences, rather than things, might be more valuable.
Illustration by Ben Thomson

This article is supported by NAB’s Platinum Visa Debit card, which can elevate your overseas experience. In this series, we look at the interconnection between travel and money.

The whole “money can’t buy happiness” thing is complicated. In the moment at least, finally purchasing those new sneakers you’ve been eyeing off for months feels… pretty good. Everyone knows that. Or do they? It’s becoming increasingly clear that our generation are approaching money in subtly different ways to generations before us. Sure, we like buying shiny stuff with our hard-earned paychecks as much as anyone else, but we’re also aware that it won’t necessarily bring us maximum joy in the long run. Those sneakers, after all, will need to be replaced next season.


Instead we’re prone to putting our money towards more fleeting forms of fun. Research has shown that 73 percent of us would prefer to pay for experiences over material things. We’re looking to make memories—and, to be honest, Instagram stories. All those brunches we’re so well-known for consuming are, at heart, a social activity. A moderately cheap way to catch up and spend quality time with friends. We’re happy to spend a few hundred dollars on a music festival ticket because we know we’ll remember for the rest of our lives the night Jake stumbled into the wrong tent and fell asleep there. Poor Jake.

Most of all, we’re saving up for travel. If there’s one thing that defines our generation in the future, it might be a love of travel. Not only do we crave it, we prioritise it, and budget for it as one of our biggest financial priorities. “I regret the amount of cash I've spent on going out or buying clothes,” says Tomas Zagoda, a freelance travel writer from Melbourne. “What I don't regret is the memories I have from my travels.”

Over the course of his twenties, Zagoda has travelled to more than 60 countries, many of them multiple times. It’s difficult to lock down a favourite: Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are up there. He also rates the Great Wall of China, Egypt’s ancient ruins, and black water rafting while surrounded by glow worms in New Zealand’s Waitomo caves.

Those experiences, he says, “brought me a lot more happiness than a new t- shirt or a fancy dinner. I don't even still own most of the clothes I bought four years ago, but the photos and memories of my time hiking the Inca Train in Peru will be with me forever. Having lots of stuff can feel great in the short term, but it's the memories you get from travelling, meeting new people, and experiencing different cultures that will last the rest of your life.”


According to research out of Cornell university, Zagoda is onto something. Psychology Professor Thomas Gilovich has spent decades researching the premise that real human happiness comes from experiences rather than objects, and the results are compelling. Gilovich and his colleagues have found that spending money on events and experiences—especially travel—benefits us in two ways. Firstly, we’ll use these experiences to make great memories that will continue to serve us for years afterwards. Secondly, planning for and anticipating these experiences is much more satisfying than the instant gratification of buying a new material object that we’ll soon grow bored of.

That planning and anticipating phase, as any traveller knows, is what gets you through the long days at the office that will fund your trip. “I've been trying to enjoy where I am rather than holding out for the next adventure,” Zagoda says. “But planning is a huge part of the enjoyment I get from travel. I like to have every day mapped out for things I want to see and do, and even include some cafes and restaurants that I want to eat at. The anticipation of a trip can never be as satisfying as the travel itself, but it does come pretty close.”

Some of us have caught the travel bug more than others, and are even making a living from travelling full time. One example is Jayne Gorman, an “affordable luxury travel blogger” who runs the website Girl Tweets World. For Gorman and her husband travel is a number one priority, so they manage to make it happen. “We don’t own a car or a house—we just hire cars and rent houses where the work is,” she explains. “We’re not frivolous with our money, we just divide our income into buckets, one of which is solely dedicated to travel.”

Our travel experiences, argues Gilovich, become inherent parts of our identities. And they’re also inherently social, promoting healthy relationships, and helping us meet new friends—or lovers. Well familiar with these benefits are New Zealanders Petra and Shaun Pearce, who run popular travel blog The Global Couple. They’ve been together since they were 18, and first went overseas together at 19. Travel has bonded them for life and “shaped them as people.”

“Our friends thought we were a bit mad, spending our meagre wages on travel,” they admit. “But we absolutely loved it. Ever since then we have been obsessed with adventuring to other parts of the world as well as exploring our own backyard. We have spent a very large amount of money on travel over the years but we don't regret it at all.”

Ah yes, regret. Another millennial trait is definitely FOMO and the tendency to do things because we don’t want to feel bad about not having done them in future. One of Gilovich’s most compelling studies showed that people are much more likelier to regret not paying for an experience than not paying for a material item. In other words, you probably won’t have any long term regrets about not buying the latest phone, but you might end up regretting any missed opportunities to go overseas during the course of your twenties.

This article is supported by NAB’s Platinum Visa Debit card, which provides a more seamless money experience when traveling with no foreign currency fees on international purchases. You can find out more here.