When Buying Happiness, Pay Up Front

Last week we learned that one of the best ways to buy happiness is to spend money on experiences rather than things. Today, I want to explore a trick to squeeze a little extra happiness out of those same purchases.

The trick is paying in advance for as much of your experience as you can.

This helps increase the happiness you get from your experience in a few ways. First, it separates the event itself from the pain of paying. Next, the anticipation and delayed gratification will make you happier. Finally, in looking forward to your experience, the uncertainty of what is to come will bring you some extra happiness, as well.

The Pain of Paying

The pain of paying is a concept explored by the field of behavioral economics. The basic idea is that it hurts us to let go of money. Even though we recognize that we are exchanging money for a good, service, or experience, we still feel pained by losing that money.

Think of the pain or annoyance you feel sitting in the back of a taxi in traffic and watching the meter tick up and up and up. You are watching the price go up as you inch down the freeway, so your brain can very closely connect the actual progress to the increased cost, and you experience the pain of paying.

Dan Ariely likes to compare the way we feel when filling up the gas in our car to the way we feel as our electricity bill climbs. We are watching the price rise penny by penny at the gas station and we cringe at the cost. Meanwhile, we rarely go out to watch the electricity meter. We just get the bill and pay it. Maybe we think it is too high and we demand that the kids turn off the lights when they leave a room, but we feel the pain a lot less.

The pain of paying is why people tend to spend more money when they are using credit cards than when they are using cash. With cash, you feel the loss while you are at the counter, allowing your brain to connect the pain of paying directly to the transaction at hand. With a credit card, you pay the bill a month later. You still feel the pain, but you don’t connect it as directly with the actual purchases that you made.

Recognizing this, we can make sure we separate the pain of paying from our experiences to prevent our brains from adding a negative connotation to our trip or event. The earlier you pay for your experience, the less you associate the pain of paying with the actual event, and the more untainted enjoyment you can get out of it.

Anticipation and Delay

Research from Dan Gilbert and others shows that events in the future cause us to feel more emotion than events in the past.

If this is true, then we would expect to be happier before our experience than after. And that is exactly what the research shows.

People who planned big trips were significantly happier than their peers in the weeks leading up to the trip, but came back down towards the average in the weeks after the trip. This means that before we even go on our trip or have our experience, we can reap happiness benefits just from having planned it.

This makes sense if we stop and think about it. When polled on their favorite days of the week, people tend to say that Saturday is their favorite, but their second favorite is usually Friday. Why? Friday is a workday, while Sunday is a day off for most people. So why do they prefer Friday to Sunday?

The answer can be found in the joy of anticipation. People are happier on Friday looking forward to the weekend and thinking about what they will do with their time off than they are on Sunday at home anticipating the upcoming workweek.

In addition, research suggests that a delay in getting something that you want can cause you to enjoy it more. So in addition to getting the benefits of looking forward to your experience, you also get a boost from the delay itself.


Most of us tend to view uncertainty as a bad thing. However, as the authors of Happy Money note, “Uncertainty itself is neither sweet nor sour; rather, it intensifies the flavor that’s already there.”

Thus, the research suggests that added uncertainty will make happy events happier, sad events sadder, and stressful events more stressful.

This is because when we have an expectation, our brains will work towards confirming the truth of that expectation. The authors point to a number of studies proving this point. One showed that people told that cartoons were funny laughed more than people with no expectations. Another found that people told a politician would perform well in a debate thought that he performed well, where people who were told he was feeling under the weather thought that he performed poorly. A third showed that people who stopped and spent a minute thinking about how fun a video game would be enjoyed the game more than those that just started the game right away.

In applying this research to planning vacations and experiences, we can see that our daydreaming at work is actually improving our experience. Or at least our perception of our experience, which is what matters for happiness.

So next time you are planning a vacation or an experience of any kind, remember to pay up front, give yourself time to anticipate, and don’t forget to daydream.

11 thoughts on “When Buying Happiness, Pay Up Front”

  1. Well I am going to make sure that I solidify travel dates in advance from now on. I still remember when we went to Europe and how much fun I had planning the trip. Why I remember the planning than some of the actual trip is beyond on me. But it brought me a ton of joy with the planning. So I can definitely attest to what you shared above 🙂

    Brilliant analysis as always. You really have a gift!!!
    Mustard Seed Money recently posted…Why You Probably Need More SleepMy Profile

  2. I completely agree with this idea. In 2016, my husband and I bought tickets for a trip in January that we weren’t taking for another 12 months. The 12-month anticipation of the trip ended up being way better than the trip itself (which was a bit of a let down) but I got to enjoy the excitement of it all year long. It was awesome.

  3. Wow, I really like the part about your mind confirming what your expectation is. It really starts to shine a light on the power of your state of mind. If you think you’re heading toward failure and victim-hood, your mind will find all of the ways to show that it’s true through selective perception. But if instead you simply see it as a challenge to your resolve, you’ll be much more likely to persevere through good and bad times to ultimately find success.
    Suburban Toolbox recently posted…Is your desk job killing you? The real dangers of sitting for long periods of time.My Profile

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