Gift Shop Fever: Why Souvenirs Aren’t Necessary to Remember Experiences

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This morning I returned from a week long vacation in Tennessee with my family. During the trip I noticed something that I had never thought twice about before: our society has an obsession with gift shops.

Whether we saw live performances, played putt putt golf, went to water parks, or hiked in national forests, there were gift shops every step of the way offering souvenirs to help us commemorate our experiences. From a business perspective, gift shops are gold mines that have incredibly high profit margins because they appeal to our emotional side: Yes, $50 for a hoodie seems like a lot, but think about what it represents – an awesome, unforgettable experience! That’s priceless!

Gift shops are so prevalent that we’re conditioned to associate them with nearly any experience. One of the most popular social events now are 5k runs, which always come with a shirt or gift bag to commemorate the event. Theme parks are littered with gift shop stands next to each ride. Heck, there are even mini-gift shops inside most restaurants now.

Growing up, my family would always buy a souvenir cup or shirt to take home with us after a social events like baseball games or carnivals. Up until now, I didn’t think this was odd at all. It seemed so normal to buy a souvenir to accompany a fun experience.

But here’s the uncomfortable truth: Souvenirs are just material possessions. Most of them will be forgotten within one week of an event, and nearly all of them will end up in the garbage at some point. One of my favorite quotes that captures this idea comes from a blog post by Ty at Get Rich Quickish:

“Material possessions are just future garbage.”

Consider this thought experiment: Think of the best trip you have ever taken. Vividly recall what made it so memorable. Now imagine someone walks up to you and says “Hey, would you like this souvenir cup for $15 as a reminder of that amazing trip?” I doubt you would say yes. Why would I need a cup to remember that incredible experience? That’s not necessary. And yet in the midst of the experience we think souvenirs are not only a great idea, but a necessary purchase.

So how do we remember events and experiences if we don’t buy souvenirs to remind us? They’re in our mind. They’re our memories. If you go on an incredible international journey, you don’t need a shirt to remind you of that adventure. It’s stored as a memory. And if you do want a vivid reminder of the experience, you can look through old photos which happen to be free.

Gift shop obsession leads to us buying trinkets, shirts, hats, and a myriad of other knick knacks that most of us never look at again once we get back home. And yet gift shop spending is one of the most carefree, unconscious spending habits we participate in. It’s part of the reason why vacations can be unnecessarily expensive. 

I don’t think souvenirs are a great evil that should be avoided at all costs. I just think it’s silly that we believe they’re necessary to remember experiences. If you collect souvenirs to represent your past experiences and travels there’s nothing wrong with that. But recognize that the souvenirs are merely a reflection of your memories.

If you have a collection of bumper stickers that remind you of your travels, the real joy you get is in conjuring up the memories of these travels and the people you met along the way. The joy is not in the bumper sticker. Souvenirs may serve as a reminder of these experiences, but they add no additional value to the experience itself.

We don’t need to empty our wallets to build up a collection of souvenirs to commemorate our experiences. We hold our experiences in our memories, which are completely free to collect.


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8 Replies to “Gift Shop Fever: Why Souvenirs Aren’t Necessary to Remember Experiences”

  1. Can’t tell you how much I agree with this post! I’m not opposed to buying souvenirs, but they aren’t necessary to make a trip successful either. One trick we stumbled on re: souvenirs is to pre-buy them. For example, if you’re headed to Disneyland then buy some Disney trinkets at Walmart beforehand at a fraction of the price and give them to the kids at the park. They’ll never know the difference and you save money.

    1. That’s a great hack! Most souvenirs are just ordinary items people are willing to overpay for in the middle of an experience that they would never otherwise buy. Pre-buying is an easy fix for this. Thanks for sharing, Ty!

  2. Interestingly enough I just bought a souvenir from our weekend getaway to a small town 🙂 Although a) it was a coin for my coin collection (so kinda an investment and hobby rolled into one?) and b) I wanted to support the coin store since they need all the help they can get these days…

    Very happy with it, but still had a tinge of guilt for spending the money when you’re right – you don’t need a trinket to remember any experiences. (at least in the near future – I surely won’t remember decades from now!). Just one of those things I guess you gotta do in moderation.

    1. My grandfather actually did something similar, he would always buy poker chips from local casinos whenever he went on vacation and he had a pretty extensive collection. To him, it was worth the money and it represented a collection of experiences. I don’t think this type of spending is inherently “wrong” at all. To some people, souvenirs really do bring them joy and it’s worth the money, which is what I think it really comes down to: is the money being spent adding value to your life. Everyone spends on different things, i.e. I spend obscene amounts on Chipotle because it’s worth it to me. It sounds like your coin collection is something you place value in, which is awesome! I don’t consider that money wasted at all. Thanks for sharing J. Money 🙂

  3. Totally agree. My wife and I have gotten very selective about what we buy as souvenirs.
    For the most part we have gotten rid of most of the ones we’ve bought or kept from the past. The ones we’ve kept are only from the most exciting and favorite trips.

    1. I like that mindset – be selective about which souvenirs are worth buying and keeping and discarding the rest. I think it’s all about maximizing how much value you get from each souvenir purchase. If most of them end up in storage in less than a month, that might be a sign that they’re not adding value to your life. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  4. On the fence a little. I have magnets on my fridge of all the places I’ve visited. They usually cost about $3.99 each on average. But every now and then when I stand by my fridge and look at a few, it brings back memories of those places (what I did, what I ate, whom I was with). It’s a triggering mechanism. I think if you can display them and they help with bringing back good memories, they may be worth it.

    1. SMM, my family has plenty of magnets on our fridge as well. I think you hit the nail on the head though – the most useful part of souvenirs is the fact that they act as a triggering mechanism to help you remember great memories and experiences. The joy doesn’t come from the souvenir itself, but from the memories it brings up. If souvenirs add value to your life, by all means keep buying them. That’s what it’s all about, using money to add the most value to your life possible 🙂

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