Jun 30, 2024

Delayed Gratification

One of my life tenets is delayed gratification, a concept where I’m surely out of sync with much of the developed world. I learned early that instant gratification is expensive and that the ability to hold off on the endless purchases that are heavily pushed will get one ahead of the curve. And once that happens, a whole new world of opportunities opens up.

I recently heard from the opposing side. The Wall Street Journal had an enlightening article on just the opposite - why we shouldn’t delay the “extras” in life that can make us happy. Oh, pity the hundreds of generations that preceded us who didn’t have these options for a good life.

My wife and I are now living the advantages of our delayed gratifications. Both the children of Depression-era parents, we shared a disdain for debt. I grew up in a new house that still has never had a mortgage and is still in our family. Neither of my parents had college educations; my dad was a miner, my mother a bookkeeper.

But this counter-culture has its challenges. I remember early in my career making a meal for my friend at my townhouse, a new home that I purchased with a mortgage. It was quite nice, with vaulted ceilings and a garage that I had never had access to before.

My friend noticed my manual can-opener. It was an upgrade from the camping one it had replaced. I probably used it once or twice a month. It took me a few seconds more to open a can than the modern electric can-openers that I didn’t want to spend a money on, but also didn’t want cluttering up my countertop.

“Why do you suffer with things like this?” she asked me. “Suffer?” Only in the U.S. would I have been seen as someone who lives with hardship. How do I respond to this question? OK, let’s begin by saying that this is probably our last date.

Today, my wife and I live in a beautifully renovated hundred year-old home on a hill near Lake Superior. We have more than we’ve ever needed and most of what we want.

Yes, we’ve often held-off on purchases, delaying gratification. Our first summer place was a three-season lake cabin without indoor plumbing. I’ve driven more than one truck until it was virtually worthless. We’ve never carried credit card debt, never financed a car since we married and paid off our home before turning fifty.

“Suffer?” I loved our cabin. I remember rising before sunrise, starting a fire outside, sitting with my wife in the quiet morning, drinking coffee while the kids slept. I had won the lottery.

We live in a world that pushes us to spend every dollar we have, and then charge the rest up on a credit card. Who can enjoy the outdoors without a new SUV, a toy I first got in my forties. The media never mentions what happens if you lose your job, or the shackles these debts put on your life.

Don’t be deceived. You won’t have more in your life by borrowing money to get it early. Delayed gratification is a key ticket to a secure and comfortable life.

So I can hardly contain myself reading the Wealth Management section in the Wall Street Journal. Jacqueline R Rifkin shares the downside of delayed gratification. She eloquently talks about her experiments where people are asked to imagine buying a bottle of wine. The study examines the impact of opening the wine now or delaying opening the wine.

Ms. Rifkin concludes that “in reality” some go too far, putting off the “sweet things in life” (e.g., a bottle of wine or a nice-smelling candle) until it’s “too late.” She speaks longingly of this bottle of wine, of “drinks with friends, birthday dinners, celebrating a promotion.”

I painfully read through the article just in case there was some wealth management help here, but, no, it grinds on, noting the “high price” and “stress” we pay for putting off such basic needs.

I acknowledge that there is a reasonableness to delaying purchases, that hoarding for some unknown future has its limits. I’m not recommending a miserly life isolated from your community. But we are mostly unaware of how expensive it is to take on debt for things that are hardly critical to survival. In the long run, spending less than you earn has huge financial benefits for you.

No surprise that Ms. Rifkin is a professor of marketing. She’s in the right place, trying to justify our first instincts. But this is no help for wealth management. Or happiness.

If you’re interested in getting ahead of the debt cycle and building a net worth that gives you vast freedom to enjoy life your way - rather than the ways sold by marketeers like Ms. Rifkin - delayed gratification is one of the keys to getting this done.

And about your “suffering” along the way, consider for a moment that nature and its wonders don’t require an SUV. Relationships don’t require some special bottle of wine. Wonderful gatherings are as close as your kitchen and pantry. Love and art and humanity are available wherever you are.

And it doesn’t require an electric can-opener. Yes, delay your gratifications, because in reality, you need little of them to find contentment, happiness and security.