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How One Hat Changed Everything for a Minnesota Resident (And Could for You, Too)

Buying things doesn't make you happy, but a few thoughtful purchases can open the door to new experiences — and help you love where you live.

By Melody Warnick on March 21, 2018

Jun-Li Wang did not love Minnesota winters. A native of California, she barely knew how to survive them. Then one year, she bought a winter hat from Eddie Bauer, one of those Elmer Fudd numbers with faux fur-lined ear flaps. “I only got it because I had a coupon,†Jun-Li says. Total spent: $10.

Just like that, everything changed.

That winter of 2014 was Minnesota’s coldest since 1996. The state was gripped by a polar vortex that turned the already-bracing cold even more frigid. In the Twin Cities, 52 nights temperatures below zero. Two feet of snow sat in frozen piles at the Minneapolis–Saint Paul airport. On January 6, the wind chill was 48 degrees below zero. And yet in her new hat, Jun-Li marveled, “I don’t feel cold!â€

Proper headgear, she realized, was the key to feeling warm in a Saint Paul winter. But at this point, she had lived in the state for MORE THAN TEN YEARS. “I was mad at my husband because he should have bought me a hat,†she remembers. “I was mad at every Minnesotan I ever met. How come no one told me?â€

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Jun-Li was so convinced that a warm hat was the key to learning to love Minnesota that she decided that everyone who crossed the border should be given a hat. Literally. She applied for a grant with the Knight Foundation and in 2015 launched St. Paul Hello (now MSP Hello) to do exactly that. Now newcomers to the city are invited to attend a welcome ceremony at the Minnesota Historical Society, where a local celebrity, like the mayor or a sports hero, hands them their very own Elmer Fudd–style fur-lined hat.

The hat is meant as a token of welcome. In Jun-Li’s mind, it’s also a very practical way to make yourself more comfortable in a city known for its grueling winters.

And it’s got me wondering: What gear do you need to make yourself happier in your city?

I know, I know. Buying things doesn’t make you happy. Experiences do. But what about paying for gear that helps you have more meaningful experiences where you live? I have spent about 20 years of my adult life in places where it snows every winter, sometimes an awful lot. Utah. Maryland. Iowa. Virginia. And yet it was only last year that I finally bought myself a pair of snow bibs. Every other winter before this, I’d haul jeans on over my long johns to go sledding or build a snowman. Within 20 minutes I’d be soggy and miserable. Not so fun.

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Finally, it occurred to me how ridiculous I was being in my misguided frugality. I lived in a snowy place! So I plunked down $30 to buy myself a cheap pair of snow bibs, and I’m here to testify that it’s made all the difference. This winter, after our first big snowfall, I simply lay there, blissed out on my sledding tube for 20 minutes, marveling at the fact of my warmth. It’s amazing how little money can bring so much pleasure.

What could you buy (or borrow, or rent) that would help you make the most of the place you live? Consider, for instance,

  • a kayak

  • hiking boots

  • a bicycle

  • season tickets to the local playhouse

  • porch chairs

  • tickets to a concert

  • a kite

  • skis

  • a sled

  • rollerblades

  • a jogging stroller

  • fishing poles

  • a bike rack for your car

  • a tent and camping supplies

  • a pass to a local museum, zoo, or aquarium

  • tickets to a sporting event

  • pool passes

Although I generally hate when people use the word “invest†to talk about purchasing stuff (These are not stocks, people! You’re not going to get your money back!), there are indeed emotional returns to be had when you buy the equipment you need for your particular place. Your feelings of commitment to your town increase, and you up the likelihood that you’ll have enjoyable, meaningful experiences that will grow your place attachment.

Money is fraught. But if you want to love where you live, spend a little and buy the gear.

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