We are not the poster children for frugality, and in fact we try to be a reassuring voice reminding people that it’s okay to spend money on the things that improve their lives. (That’s what money’s for, right?)
We’re likewise not the poster children for minimalism, though we admire people who live that way. We do our best to live intentionally, but we are into too many sports and hobbies to have a stark, clutter-free home. (Also, books. We’ll never quit you.)
The expensive outdoor gear. The fancy travel gadgets. These things have taken on an almost totemic meaning, as the currency of the activities. They have become — or at least people seem to believe that they have become — the signifiers that I belong here.
Think the $300 Bose noise-cancelling headphones. The $900 avalanche airbag pack. The $200 cycling jersey.
All of these things can be justified rationally, but the truth is that they are pure signifiers. They don’t actually make life better, then just bring cachet.
And you don’t need any of that stuff. None of us do.
Things That Signify
This is something we see nearly every weekend when we venture onto our local slopes and trails. Check out this recent photo, snapped surreptitiously:
This was a group we passed on a local trail, a group clearly comprised of tourists. How do we know? Look at all of that brand new, expensive, unnecessary gear! It’s like they all went to REI together and said, “We’re going for a long-distance hike, and we need everything possible to do that right!”
This trail was seven miles round-trip.
Also, it was 90 degrees. Yet everyone in this group was rocking multiple layers and must have been dying. But they had paid for all of this stuff, so I get why they were wearing it all.
Here’s a good rule: If the thing you’re considering buying has a special word in the name, you almost certainly don’t need it.
In outdoors gear, if it has the word “trekking” in it, you might as well replace “trekking” with “expensive thing you can live without.”
Let’s take another look at that photo:
I count almost $800 worth of specialized clothing and gear just on that one guy, and only based on what we can see from that back. And how much of that gear was essential to the hike they were doing? Maybe the shoes.
Because here’s the thing: hiking is walking. (My favorite Sex and the City quote ever.) It’s fundamentally the same as walking around the block, except you might go out for longer, walk on steeper or more uneven ground and maybe need to be prepared for bad conditions. But do you need a technical shirt that wicks your sweat and repels mosquitos to go for a walk? Of course not. Do you need fancy collapsing trekking poles? Maybe, if you have bad knees, or you’re carrying a 40-pound long distance backpacking pack. But for a dayhike with a daypack? Nah. All the rest? Same answer.
Our preferred hiking clothing: t-shirts and pants or shorts we’d wear to the gym. Add a baseball cap for shade and whatever non-specialized backpack we have laying around, and we’re set. For easy hikes, we’ll just wear regular sneakers, though for a more rocky or steep hike we might actually wear hiking boots.
Related post: You don’t need to buy a bunch of new stuff to go camping
Apply the same thinking to airplane travel. Fundamentally, what is it? Going for a walk and then sitting in a chair. Granted, our current airport security system makes it beneficial to have things like three-ounce refillable bottles for toiletries, and shoes that go on and off easily, but that’s a tiny part of the experience. For the rest of it, it’s really just sitting, something most of us do a big part of every day plenty well without special gear. Besides, noise cancelling headphones take up a lot of space in your bag, and so do fancy travel pillows. (Need to kill some time? Search for “travel pillow” on Amazon. Your head will explode.)
Before we buy anything new, let’s ask ourselves what we’re buying it for, and really scrutinize that. Hiking? Really just walking. Flying? Really just sitting. Long distance road tripping? More sitting. Gourmet cooking? Mostly cutting and stirring.
Adding Cachet, Not Value
The interesting thing we’ve noticed over time is that the people with the very best outdoor gear are rarely the people who live in the mountains. And the travelers with all the gadgets aren’t those who travel the most. It’s not that those of us who spend lots of time doing these things haven’t tried all those toys, but at a certain point you realize that they aren’t adding value to your life, they’re only adding cachet.
They make you look like the type of person who belongs in that place. You must be a really good skier if you have that airbag pack. And you must travel all the time if you have those headphones, that Tumi suitcase. But ultimately it’s just more stuff. More weight to carry, more clutter to corral. It doesn’t actually make life better, and it certainly doesn’t make you better at that activity. No one has ever become a world-class anything just by buying the best gear. (Though many have tried.)
Things That Actually Make Life Better
Despite the profusion of things that no one needs, let alone those who pursue hobbies only casually (ahem, seven-mile dayhikers wearing thousands of dollars of brand new stuff), there are truly some things that make life better. And those are up to each of us to define.
I spend a lot of my life on airplanes, so I’m glad that I bought high quality, leak-proof glass containers that I can fill with my own food.
Being able to eat actual vegetables is so much better than relying on the overpriced junk on the plane, even if work is paying. It’s worth it to me to have spent money on quality containers because we believe health is worth investing in.
I’m also happy to have packing cubes, because I pack and unpack a lot, and they make that so much easier. But to someone else, they’re probably an unnecessary gimmick. Same goes for my insulated stainless steel water bottle, my external battery pack for my phone, and a handful of other splurges that no one needs, but that I’m happy I have because of the value they add to my life.
Just as we should spend according to our values, we should also expect that what we spend money on gives value back to us.
What Adds Value to Your Life?
We’d love to hear from you guys — what unnecessary items feel totally worth it to you because they make your life better in some meaningful way? And what gadgets and gizmos do you see around you that might make people look cool, but don’t add value? (Teslas come to mind, but maybe that’s just me… happy to debate that one in the comments!) ;-)