The Delay of Gratification: Reward and RegretMay 17, 2021 October 2, 2021 /
The delay of gratification is essential to success. But what happens if we delay gratification for too long or too often?
You’ve heard of the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. Put a marshmallow in front of a child and tell them that they will get two if they don’t eat it for 15 minutes.
Some eat it. Some don’t.
The intent of the test is to identify the ability to resist temptation and delay pleasure. The results indicate those able to delay gratification have greater success in life. However, metrics of success aren’t indicators for how happy you are, or if you are ultimately fulfilled.
What does delay of gratification mean?
Britannica defines the delay of gratification as the act of resisting an impulse to take an immediately available reward in the hope of obtaining a more-valued reward in the future. The ability to delay gratification is essential to self-regulation, or self-control.
It is true that delayed gratification can serve you well throughout life.
Members of the financial independence/retire early (FIRE) community understand delay of gratification. Consequently, they invest a dollar rather than spending it in order to take advantage of compound interest and accumulate a net worth they can live off of for the rest of their lives.
If left in the FIRE for too long, marshmallows no longer satisfy the palate.
The FIRE community is made up of extremely gritty individuals. They are experts at delaying gratification. This skill helps them advance towards their magic number. Along the journey, however, they often realize the delay of gratification becomes a habit with unexpected and unwanted consequences.
If you focus only on financial independence, you may end up retired without purpose or direction. When you should be celebrating in your new life, you may find yourself lost, wondering where you fit in this new world.
It turns out that when you spend a majority of your adult life resisting temptation and pushing aside experiences, you are left with a life that has prioritized only your future financial well-being and very little else.
In our pursuit of FIRE, we need to learn to find ourselves outside of work and spreadsheets. We need to cultivate relationships, adventure, and learn to be comfortable spending money on the things we love, even if it delays our FIRE goals.
This will reduce the likelihood you will have trouble spending money as you move from the accumulation phase to the drawdown phase.
Rewards and regrets of delayed gratification
Nothing has served me better in life than delaying rewards.
Haircuts, hobbies, makeup, and a few all-inclusive vacations have been resisted. My understanding of opportunity costs and delayed gratification have supported my journey to financial independence. I currently own 2 duplexes and exchange traded funds (ETFs). I’m well on my way to a life of financial independence.
In April, I moved into my new home. At the time, I was working overtime, running weekly financial meetups, cleaning my Airbnb, and managing a rental property.
My new home needed cosmetic work, new carpets, paint, and more. The punch list was a page long.
A month after living in the new home, a rainstorm came through Denver. The “old” moisture stains in the ceiling were active leaks. The new roof I had planned to get at the end of summer or next year was now a top priority.
I was stressed.
The following day, an attendee of my virtual meetups reached out. They were going to be in Denver and wanted to meet in person. As chaotic as my life was, creating my community is important to me. I was happy to carve out time to meet them. He amended his invitation to say that he had a private plane taking him from Denver to San Francisco and I could join if I found my own accommodations and flight home.
Will you regret the delay of gratification?
A plane ticket from San Francisco to Denver was $200 (future 10 year retirement value: $445).
That $200 could go towards my $12k roof, or groceries. I had work meetings that were difficult to reschedule. Other appointments with roofers and flooring contractors had been scheduled for weeks.
Was this the right time to flex my delayed gratification muscle?
I had good friends in San Francisco that I could stay with. It had been a year since we last saw each other. If I said no, this unique experience would not be available again. More importantly, if I said no, I would start the shaky road of giving up a part of me that loves to say “yes” to adventure.
My sense of adventure took me around the world. It persuaded me to move from Canada to the U.S. It represents the part of me that believes things will always work out. I couldn’t betray it now.
I said yes.
Honoring this part of myself led to cultivating a new frienship and seeing old friends. It was a fabulous twenty-four hours in San Francisco before a flight returned me to the responsibilities of my life.
If I say no to opportunities as rewarding as this, I wouldn’t be supporting my true self.
The financial independence journey is about learning how to live the life you want, not about racing to a magic bank account balance.
Delayed gratification does not mean delayed joy
Delayed gratification is a tool we use to check ourselves on impulsive, materialistic, or destructive non-essentials. It can support our hobbies, relationships, and creative endeavors.
Are you missing out on relationships, adventure, and hobbies that fulfill you?
I love Ramit Sethi’s philosophy…
How can you live by Ramit Sethi’s philosophy?
- Make a list of priorities; friends, food, art, fashion – whatever it is that makes your heart sing.
- Budget to spend on those priorities.
- Align your current life activities to match the person you envision yourself to be when you retire.
For me this looks like potlucks and happy hours with friends, slow traveling the world, saying “yes” to adventures. I enjoy walks, singing lessons, and haircuts by one specific stylist in Vancouver, Canada.
If your current employment prohibits you from partaking in your priorities, develop an exit strategy. Find an employer that will allow you to carve out the time you need to live now and delay less gratification.
The delay of gratification comes with many more advantages than disadvantages. But, do not make the mistake of placing too much emphasis on delaying enjoyment.
Maximizing what makes you happy now and hitting your goal of financial independence are not mutually exclusive priorities.
What are you going to do today to bring more joy to your life?
By Amberly Grant