One day the Dow is up, the next it’s down, but with the recession continuing to bite, most of us are more mindful of what we spend than we’ve been in the past. How can we use money more consciously as a tool to build a happy life for ourselves and the people we care about? That’s a question I explore in my book, All the Money in the World: What the Happiest People Know About Getting and Spending. Contrary to much conventional wisdom, I believe that money can buy happiness, if we spend it right.
One way to buy happiness? Take the time to create an incredible weekend—one you’ll look back on fondly, savoring the memory for weeks to come. Here are seven steps for making that happen, for less money than you might imagine.
Step 1: Choose 3 to 5 activities you enjoy most
I like to keep a running list of all the things I want to do or have in life. Some are grand dreams (like having a private dinner catered in the Louvre) but others are more everyday fonts of joy: going for a long run in a beautiful park; visiting the Philadelphia Museum of Art when it’s open late on Friday nights. Try brainstorming your own list when you’re bored on a conference call. Then choose some of those activities—just three to five—that you could do in the near future. These can be anything you like, but happiness research gives a few guidelines: One study of Texas working women, published in Science in 2004, found that, beyond obviously pleasurable activities like eating and sex, people are happiest when they are socializing, engaging in spiritual activities, and exercising. (Really!) So a great weekend could include at least one activity from each category: dinner with friends, volunteering at a soup kitchen, and a long bike ride in the woods.
Step 2: Consider cheap alternatives
Maybe your dream activities are free, but if not, it’s often possible to do things you love at multiple price points. If you want to get together with friends for a meal, you could host a potluck rather than go to a restaurant. Love to shop? Set up a clothing swap with your friends and “shop” in each other’s closets. If your favorite part of a vacation is the hotel, stay in a fabulous one in your town, spend the whole day in the spa and order room service—but skip the airfare.
Step 3: Plan, plan, plan
Having specific things on your calendar to look forward to massively increases your enjoyment of them by extending the experience, says Cassie Mogilner, a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, who specializes in happiness research. “The whole time you’re looking forward to it and anticipating it, you’re getting some of the benefits of the experience itself,” she explains. So enjoy working through the logistics of your weekend. Do you need to buy tickets for that Friday night concert? Do you need to find a bar that has karaoke on Saturday at noon? Ironing out all these details takes time, but you’re building anticipation for a fun break—and besides, nothing spoils a great weekend like realizing, in the parking lot, that the restaurant you wanted to visit for Sunday brunch doesn’t open until dinner.
Step 4: Beat the Sunday-night blues
Be sure that something special is on the schedule for Sunday night. Even people who like their jobs occasionally succumb to end-of-weekend malaise. When you’ve got something on your calendar for the Sunday p.m. hours, you’ll spend that afternoon looking forward to the evening, rather than dreading Monday morning. Some low-key Sunday options? Have another family over for a casual dinner, or maybe use this slot for a relaxing long walk or an evening worship service.
Step 5: Off-load the not-fun stuff
Unfortunately, your best weekend ever will still feature some “have-to-dos,” even if it’s just filling the car with gas or stopping by an ATM. Designating a two- to three-hour block of time for these musts will allow you to be present for the fun times without worrying about all the tasks on your list. You can tell yourself there’s a time for those things—and now is not that time.
Step 6: Write down how you’re feeling
Keep notes in a journal during your weekend. What boosted your spirits most? What exactly did that cost? Many times we spend money trying to make ourselves happy. But hitting the mall just because you’re restless or bored is a sure recipe for mindless spending. Setting your sights on the deeper joys your money can buy is a good preventative measure: If you know that spending $50 on treating your sister to lunch and enjoying an afternoon together at the art museum will make you happy, then the next time you’re about to buy a sweater that’s $50 on sale, you’ll ponder whether that’s the best use of cash. Documented evidence of that event—in the form of your journal, photographs, or even your Facebook posts—will remind you precisely what buys happiness (and what does not).
Step 7: Repeat and share
Some experiences are once in a lifetime (like that private dinner in the Louvre). But the good news about this kind of weekend is that you can live through it multiple times. And you should! Creating a special weekend every few months can give you a lot to look forward to. If you really want to multiply the magic, start helping your friends and loved ones plan their best weekends ever. Chances are you’ll be going to a lot of parties—and getting great ideas that you can try out as well.
This piece originally ran in 2013.