Assuming you’re not already a millionaire, what would you do as a member of the seven-figure club? Would you commission a private jet or hire a personal assistant? Finagle front-row tickets to the hottest Broadway shows, or simply invest all your cash toward an early retirement?
Beyond wishful thinking, asking these questions can provide clues to more strategically deploying the cash you already have. So even if you have rent to pay and student loans due, you might actually be able to squeeze more of the luxury or freedom you crave out of your current budget than you realize.
Luckily, a few principles gleaned from surveys and behavioral science can help you get more than your money’s worth while having fun. Research suggests that at a certain point, satisfaction is less about how much cash you have — it’s about how you spend it.
So, what are the best ways to turn small-seeming sums into rewards that feel big? Here are five ways to spend just $100 but have it feel like a million bucks.
1. Buy yourself some free time
Imagine how you’d spend time if you had an assistant to run errands for you.
While you might take some pride in cooking dinners or cleaning your home, a 2017 study in PNAS called “Buying time promotes happiness” suggests why doing all your chores yourself might not be the best path to joy. “Across the socioeconomic spectrum, spending discretionary income to save time promotes happiness,” said lead author Ashley Whillans in a phone interview.
That includes hiring someone to help you move instead of doing it yourself or buying takeout to save time cooking.
The trick here is that you don’t have to be rich to enjoy the benefits of having a personal assistant. For example, you could have your groceries delivered from a service like Peapod, hire a cleaning person or get a “tasker” to fix your clogged drain.
One New York City service that charges nothing but can shave precious minutes off your lunch hour is called Ritual: You order your lunch a few minutes ahead of time at popular food joints like Umami Burger and Chopt, and then skip the line when you pick it up.
And if you still feel guilty? One way to feel better about buying time is to use that extra hour you gain to do something that makes you happy, like taking a free yoga class, going to a museum or exercising. Better yet, treat a friend to lunch or drinks, since spending on others can make you even happier than buying yourself something.
2. Upgrade your air travel experience
It’s only natural to dream of hopping on a private jet to a balmy destination. But is what you desire the full VIP experience — or simply the part where you skip the security line and get some precious personal space? If you feel like air travel today is its own special version of hell, you’re not alone: In a 2017 survey, more than half of respondents described airport terminals as stressful; meanwhile, waiting in lines was the top cited frustration for travelers.
You might be surprised, however, by how many rich-person niceties you can buy yourself for a mere $100.
Instead of enduring drama in line long before liftoff, consider splurging for TSA PreCheck (which costs $85 for five years) or Global Entry (which includes TSA PreCheck plus expedited customs screening and costs $100 for five years). Not only do the programs shave precious minutes off your time in line, they also eliminate the need to partially undress and unpack on your way to the gate.
You can also buy yourself some creature comforts in line with seat upgrades to premium economy or economy plus. Not only are they roomier, but they also come with sweet perks like priority check-in and baggage handling, which means your checked bags will come out of baggage claim first. Expect to pay about 15 to 20% more, with upgrades starting for as little as $15 — or $0 if you ask nicely and get lucky.
3. Gain richer memories
Big purchases don’t necessarily lead to satisfaction. “All the research shows that the size of your house does nothing for your happiness,” Michael Norton, coauthor of Happy Money said in a phone interview. So instead of focusing on acquiring more stuff, treat yourself to a memorable experience instead.
Thankfully, there are lots of ways to spend just $100 on a memorable experience, like renting bikes to tour your favorite city (for just $7 a day per person in Los Angeles, for example) to taking a bead-stringing class in Brooklyn (for $40). Many cities also host murder mystery dinners – one at Rosa Mexicano in Atlanta goes for $90 per person, while another in Dallas is just under $70 per person. For more affordable ideas, check out deals on Groupon, Thrillist or Time Out in your city.
While experiences themselves are fleeting, their emotional impact lasts longer than the joy you’ll get from buying a new shirt or lamp.
While most of us understand this on a gut level, the urge to make the best use of our money leads people to buy things instead of experiences, according to a 2014 study in the Journal of Positive Psychology.
4. Enjoy “free” fun... by paying upfront
Here’s a secret: You don’t have to be super rich to enjoy low-stress, high-pleasure spending. Part of the thrill of having a lot of money is spending less time feeling guilty and more time enjoying it. So to feel like a millionaire, “whenever you can, you should pay for something right up front and then delay consumption,” Elizabeth Dunn, coauthor of the 2013 book Happy Money, said on the Meb Faber Show.
Why is it such a good idea to pay in advance (aside from making sure you can afford it)? Because the mere act of paying for something, especially if it is high-priced or you use cash, actually activates a region of your brain that processes physical pain. So you want to get that part out of the way as soon as possible. (For an added reward, put all your splurges on a cash-back card like Citi Double Cash, and don’t check your rewards until you’ve spent $5,000, or enough to get $100 back.)
Plenty of places will happily take your money in advance, whether you’re booking a Broadway show months before you see it (TodayTix can help you find the lowest prices), paying for a vacation day trip long before you arrive or getting a deal on a chilly cryotherapy session. You can even pay in advance for nice tech gear like a Kindle Paperwhite ($99) or a good pair of headphones like the Sony MDR-7506s (for $100 or less).
What’s more, “delayed pleasure not only increases anticipatory excitement but can also enhance the pleasure once it is eventually enjoyed,” as the New York Times noted, citing a study in which students who waited 30 minutes before eating chocolate enjoyed it more than those who got to eat it immediately.
Note that “paying for it” does not mean charging it to your credit card and then putting off paying the actual bill. If you charge more than you can afford, you can easily wind up in credit card debt, which will seriously stress you out.
5. Live rich (in moderation)
It may seem like rich people get to buy anything their heart desires, while the rest of us are constantly making compromises. They go to the best restaurants and fanciest spas, and they order top-shelf booze with nary a second thought.
That may sound amazing, but it turns out that getting whatever you want whenever you want has diminishing returns. “The greatest misunderstanding about happiness,” Dunn said on the Meb Faber Show, is that “we tend to assume that if something makes us happy, then more of it would make us even happier.”
So instead of always seeking out more, give yourself exactly what you want, but less often. To stay within your budget, focus on the best part of a luxury experience instead of adding in all the extras. For example, order cocktails at a fancy restaurant instead of the whole meal. Buy your favorite bourbon (like this $100 bottle of Jefferson’s Ocean) and enjoy it at home with friends instead of paying a 500% markup, plus tax, to drink it in a dive bar.
Want to pamper yourself? Treat yourself to a facial or massage with a hot stone treatment instead of a full day at the spa or paying $99 on Zeel (plus tip and tax) for a masseuse to come to your home.
The reason why more isn’t more is because of a pesky thing called habituation, which makes you take stuff for granted over time, no matter how wowed you were by it at the outset.
In other words, you’ll enjoy a restaurant meal more if you don’t eat out every night. In a happy coincidence, that also means you’ll spend less money, which leaves more left over for the “fun fund” where you’re squirreling away for your dream vacation.
Now, if all else fails, there is an even more foolproof (and literal) way to turn $100 into a million: Put it toward retirement. If you invest $100 in a retirement account every month for 30 years, assuming you earn 6% on that money, you’d end up with a seven-figure nest egg.
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