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Travel and Materialism

I read a piece the other day about how Travel and Materialism go hand in hand.  I unfortunately forgot where I read the post, but it struck a bit of a nerve with me.  In this post I want to explore travel, experiences, and materialism.

Travel and Materialism: Showing Off?

The writer of the blog with the other post suggested that travel and experiences are another form of showing off for the wealthy.  That in a world where people struggle travel is no better a display of wealth then buying the latest flashy cars.  The post smacked a bit of class warfare, but honestly that’s besides the point.  I’m not going to respond here in any way about perception.  Instead I want to explore the underlying point about the intrinsic value of travel itself.

The Value of Travel is Different for Each Person and Trip

I am a huge proponent on this blog about the value of travel.  If you look through our history I’ve written page about the business travel and it’s impacts on your career.  I’ve also highlighted the value of understanding other cultures to your career.  Those are very tangible positives to travel.  But let’s be honest, they are not true for all travel or all people.  Let’s explore each of these for a moment.

Not All Travel is Enriching

First lets look at all travel.  Much of my travel over the decades has been imbedded with the locals.  Seeing how they live, interacting, and understanding how to adapt to there culture.  But, occasionally we go on simple vacations.  Vacations where the point is not to learn, but to unwind and de-stress.  Places like an all inclusive in Mexico where the number of times you see a local other than the one serving your Cervesa (which often isn’t a local themselves) you can count on one hand.  In those cases you are not getting a cultural experience.  There is no massive learning you can apply to your life or your work.  That does not mean the trip is without value, we all need a break from time to time, but it is to highlight not all travel is created equal when it comes to enlightenment.  

Not All People are Enriched by Travel

The second I mentioned was all people.  Let’s be honest you get what you give in travel.  If you don’t try to understand what the locals do, you won’t understand the locals.  If you don’t search out the local experiences, you’ll likely just see the tourist traps.  Again that still might be of value.  The traps are a trap for a reason, because they have something unique but easy to visit.  But you won’t see how the locals live, you’ll see how the locals market to foreigners.

Travel Enrichment is a Matter of Degrees   

Then there are of course degrees of the above.  We have friends that like to travel and enjoy various other cultures.  However, they won’t eat anything other than American food.  We have another set that do exactly the opposite.  Each is getting only a subset of the cultural experience, even if they still find value in their trips.

Travel does not have to be About Enrichment

If you go back and read those last three paragraphs again though, you’ll note something.  Even if you are not using the travel to forward your perspective, there is nothing wrong with traveling for other reasons.  Nor is it the only reason to travel.  Which really brings us to the point.  Travel’s true value is in what you make of it.

The True Purpose of Travel Depends on Your Values

I’ve focused heavily on this site around spending on what you value.  That applies to travel in the same way as it applies to tangible goods.  Some bloggers espouse only buying a 20 year old Chevy Cavalier for a car and driving it until the wheels fall off.  A car fanatic like me would find that depressing.  Instead I have a toy 3rd car because having it is what I value.  Some bloggers espouse saving your money and not traveling (or even traveling local).  Others like me intermix traveling internationally because we enjoy seeing the world and experiencing other cultures.  Again, something I value.  

The Value of Materialism and Travel Ultimately Depend on You

Some travelers want to live like the locals.  Others want to be pampered on the beach.  Still others want adventure.  Again a million and one different potential values from travel that may or may not appeal to different people.  And finally some don’t want to travel at all, preferring to stay put.  Each has different values and if they are thinking straight those values guide them to their purchasing decision.  The same can be said for any purchases of material goods.

Our Biggest Expense is Travel

How serious are we about values guiding our purchases?  Well if we ignore the travel hacking goal of making our actual out of pocket 0, we spend more on travel expenses than any other discretionary category.  Why?  Because that is what we value, we spend aligned with our values.

Materialism as Keeping Up with the Jones

Which brings us back to the piece I mentioned.  If the person meant by that piece that buying something expensive or spending a lot on travel you are doing something wrong, I strongly disagree.  However there is a different definition of Materialism.  One where you buy something simply to keep up with the jones.  You buy because of what others may think.  

The Opportunity Cost of Travel

In that scenario, travel and materialism can be the same thing.  If you are traveling to keep up with those on Instagram or to have a great story, you are wasting your money.  Traveling, car purchases, eating out, and really anything else discretionary should be spent based on your values, your enjoyment of those things.  Ultimately your purchase is forgoing something else in travels favor, so you better be sure you enjoy it.

Travel is Still a Discretionary Expense

Now before I close, even though this post is not really about it, I would be remiss to mention what if you can’t afford to travel.  We have friends to which this applies.   In one case even traveling a few miles down the road would be a big deal since they can’t afford a car or the time off.  I recognize through them and others that some can’t afford to travel.     That is a reality, buying discretionary things of any type implies you have discretionary money.  We all differ on how much discretionary money we have.

Life is About Tradeoffs

 Life is all about choices and tradeoffs.  No one has everything they value even those we would consider truly rich.  This is true for the guy cutting your lawn, your neighbor next door, myself, and even your CEO.  I choose travel and a 11 year old toy car for our discretionary purchases, giving up many other things I might otherwise value.  Some might have more discretionary money then others due to financial success, but no matter your wealth level you will be making those tradeoffs. 

IE the only real difference between someone wealthy and poor once good financial management is instilled, is where their discretionary financial position dictates the cutoff point on which values they execute.  Finding that point for you and holding true to it is the true measure of successfully managing your finances.

Do you travel?  Do you see tangible benefits from travel?


  1. Kody
    Kody August 21, 2018

    While I’ve never traveled abroad yet, I do see the value of travel. It expands our horizons, and reminds us there is a diverse world out there to explore. I much prefer experiences over material items. Too often, we let our material possessions control us.

  2. Mr 39 months
    Mr 39 months September 2, 2018

    Another issue to consider is that, in a couple, you may have different attitudes on travel. I am much more a fan of travel and adventure than mrs.39 months. This will have an affect on what you do and where you go.

    • FullTimeFinance
      FullTimeFinance September 2, 2018

      Very true, I’m lucky there. Mrs. FTF likes travel even more then I do.

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