Give Memories, Not Things: Using Travel to Celebrate Milestones

Three days after we got married, I had back surgery instead of a honeymoon.

Our long running joke about the traditional vows, “For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health,” is that we started out sick and poor, so it had to get better. To celebrate our first anniversary we drove our beater car from central Indiana to Miami and took a four day cruise to the Bahamas. You know, one of those free ones you get for sitting through the time share presentation in which they browbeat you and tell you you’re a terrible parent for not buying in so your non-existent children will have a place to vacation? It was all we could afford, and it was fantastic. We got sunburned, we got offered weed on the street five times a day, we ate lobster, our car was t-boned by a drunk Irish dude – what more could a girl ask for in a belated honeymoon? How ‘bout 20 more?

Taking an annual honeymoon


That trip started a long standing tradition of annual honeymoons. Some were big: to Hawaii for number ten. Some were tiny: a cake purchased at a grocery store and eaten in our tent in the rain somewhere in England with our four kids and a friend. Some have been epic: a two week east coast motorcycle tour through Maritime Canada. Others have been quick: an overnight at a fancy hotel with creme brulee and berries via room service.

Almost by accident, that tradition has lead to a trend in our family, as it has grown from just our two hearts to six, to value experiences over things. The grandparents have even gotten on board.

Use travel to celebrate the holidays and start planning your trip!
Use travel to celebrate the holidays and start planning your trip!

We travel for a living. Right now we are in an RV, touring the backroads of New Zealand with approximately 21square feet per person.

  • For the preceding ten months we’ve been living out of backpacks in Southeast Asia.
  • Before that we were camping in the USA.
  • Before that we were road tripping Central America.
  • Before that we were bicycling Europe and North Africa.

We don’t have a lot of room for stuff. So what’s a person to do when birthdays and holidays come around that are famous for being celebrated by a consumeristic binge? Opt out? Exactly the opposite. We opt in, but in all the ways that will matter for a lifetime, not simply a morning or a few months of tangible enjoyment.

Instead of buying things, we buy experiences

Elephant riding

We decided long ago to spend our money on enriching our lives, building relationships, and crafting memories that tie heartstrings with the people who matter most. We don’t have closets full of clothes. Our kids have only the toys they love enough to carry on their backs. We’ve traded a pretty house for beautiful landscapes and the ability to change them at will.

I don’t remember what I got for my tenth birthday, but I promise you that when my youngest child is 38, he will. We rode elephants in the jungles surrounding the tiny town of Pai, Thailand for his 10th birthday. Our daughter wanted to see Angkor Wat for her 16th birthday, so we did (although on her actual birthday we were in Vietnam and she had a stunning Vietnamese tunic and pants custom made as a gift. She’ll never forget that either!) Our middle son spent his 12th birthday with “Uncle Ho” in Hanoi and proudly sports the t-shirt. My husband’s birthday was spent surrounded by friends and travelers at an enormous party in San Marcos, Guatemala. We’d been living there for six months, and the entire town came to his party. Two restaurants closed because there was no point in opening – everyone was with us.

For Christmas two years ago my in-laws came to Guatemala and spent two weeks climbing volcanos and learning Spanish with us. It was their first international trip and a huge gift of irreplaceable memories stitched into the hearts of our kids.

We have some of the coolest grandparents, on both sides of our family. They’ve gotten on board with our quest to make memories and give experiences instead of stuff. For Christmas two years ago my in-laws came to Guatemala and spent two weeks climbing volcanos and learning Spanish with us. It was their first international trip and a huge gift of irreplaceable memories stitched into the hearts of our kids. Four years ago my parents flew almost half way around the world to join us, camping, on the sands of the Sahara in Tunisia. We rode camels for Christmas and lay, freezing, in the dark as Daddy read the end of A Christmas Carol out loud. My Dad told me in the morning that listening to my husband read reminded him of our childhood sleepless nights in Central America when he’d read for hours to stave off the suffering of mosquitos and unbearable heat. I come about it honestly as we’ve been investing in memories for generations on my side of the family.

Using travel to celebrate


I turn forty in 17 months, but who is counting? I’m really looking forward to it. My twenties were a decade of pregnant or nursing and were characterized by chronic laughter and exhaustion, and I got four people off of my skirt hems and on towards independence. My thirties have been a roller coaster of adventures that have taught me much about life and myself. I’m surprised to find that I’m not at all who I thought I was before. My forties promise to be a time of rebirth and a different sort of adventuring, in which my children will leave as quickly as they came and I’ll have time on my hands in a way that I haven’t in a very long time. I’m excited about that.

To mark our 40th birthdays my friend Jade and I have an adventure in the works. It was her idea, truth be told. We’re going to take a month or so late next spring and walk the Camino de Santiago from St. Jean Pied-du-Port, France to Santiago, Spain. It’s about 500 miles, and we’re going to do it alone, just she and I. It will mark the milestone of our entrance into the second half of life. Mid-life deals some surprises, and we’re intending to spend some time walkin’ it off. It will be a time of personal reflection and seeking direction. It will be a time to celebrate who we are and where we’ve been as well as where we’re headed as individuals – wives, mothers, daughters, and friends. Neither of us want a gift we can hold in our hands; instead we’re creating a gift to one another that we’ll hold in our hearts forever.

I’ve read that the average American was projected to spend over $850 on Christmas in 2012 and that the average spending per child was over $270. I believe it. So, if you’re a couple, that means that Christmas is likely setting you back $1700. If you have four kids, like we do, you could average $1080 on just the kids, never mind extended family and friends. Six months later, what do you have to show for that? Is the “stuff” still treasured, still making you “happy?” With all my heart, I hope so. What I can promise you, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is that the memories made with that same amount of money will live forever in your mind, and the collective consciousness of the people you make them with. Every adventure you have with your kids changes the culture of your family forever.

Instead, I think of us as maximalists. We believe in living life to the fullest, sucking the marrow from every moment, spending our money liberally on the things that really matter.

We’ve been accused, occasionally, of being minimalists, because we’ve downsized to the point of only what we can carry and because we just don’t buy stuff. To be honest, that kind of offends me. I don’t view us as minimalists at all. To me, there are negative connotations to that word, and there’s an arrogance that seems to go with it for some people. As if living with less is somehow morally or socially, or ecologically superior to “everyone else.”

Instead, I think of us as maximalists. We believe in living life to the fullest, sucking the marrow from every moment, spending our money liberally on the things that really matter. And that is people and experiences that will last for a lifetime, perhaps into eternity – not things that will end up in a landfill. We’ve stayed at the Four Seasons a few times and reveled in the lap of luxury. We’ve also camped with no electricity or running water in more than a few places and delighted in the simplicity of stars over head and a card game with friends by lamplight.

Give me people and experiences over stuff, every single time.

Check out the following articles and resources to inspire you to make travel a bigger part of your life:

manifesto - options over possessions


Leave a Comment

  • Rini Marina said at 2014-03-10T09:11:05+0000: I guess I have to start buying my self a flight tix for my birthday as a gift for my self :)
  • Megan Mcmullan said at 2013-12-04T07:56:06+0000: What a fantastic way to live !
  • Melanie Adair said at 2013-11-29T15:40:15+0000: Totally agree!
  • Harriet Jakowich said at 2013-03-29T07:26:21+0000: I swear you were writing my beliefs. I have lived in Anchorage, AK for 5 long miserable years. We have 4 year old twins, and I feel like they have missed out on so much. Poor things have NEVER seen a snake :(. We will be moving back to Denver, and LOVE the fact that we won't have much too our name, (we aren't where you are). But, truly enjoy what the world has to offer us. When I was a kid, living on a 5 square mile island in the Caribbean (Saba), there wasn't much to do. We took a family vacation (immediate, uncles, cousins, aunts, grandparents) to Puerto Rico. To this day 23+ years later, I still remember those memories, but like you mentioned, I couldn't remember what I got for my birthday at 10. Glad I am not alone in this materialistic world.
  • Yarni MacAlister said at 2013-04-11T05:04:25+0000: Love love love it. This is exactly how I want to live my life! Thanks for your brilliance!
  • Ashlie Alaman said at 2013-03-25T18:06:49+0000: I want to be YOU! This is awesome!
  • OTA - Overland Travel Adventures said at 2013-04-20T05:27:23+0000: Great article! I'm ready for implementation :)
  • Toni Chow said at 2013-04-03T12:54:13+0000: We also believe as you do, and each year set aside a time to travel and do things together as a family. These are the things that will leave behind impressions, open up the world to our children, and bond as a family. Thank you for sharing your beautiful story!
  • Julie Sudderth said at 2013-04-03T12:43:43+0000: Beautiful and inspiring. Your thoughts on the holidays and family celebrations really hit home - so true! Thanks!
  • Jennifer Miller said at 2013-03-26T01:54:56+0000: Thanks for your kind words! Go for it and make your life epic!
  • Laura Theresa said at 2013-03-25T17:20:36+0000: So perfectly written. Couldn't agree more.
  • 최창석 said at 2013-04-11T07:31:14+0000: intrepid Is just amazing.
  • Sandra Ankenbrand said at 2013-04-11T11:34:00+0000: That's exacetyl my way of life... Appartement and all necesseties are debt-free... So I changed to a job which gives me the minimum to life on but leaves me time to travel at least 3-6 months a year...