Instant Gratification: Why 76% of Americans Live Paycheck to Paycheck and How You Can Beat That Cycle with 12 Simple Strategies

It’s a statistic that I just can’t get over: 76% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. That just simply blows my mind every time I think about it. Three quarters of America would run into serious financial problems if they missed their next paycheck or two – they’d have to skip bills or sell things or make major life changes immediately.

There are lots of reasons for this. I could list dozens of them off the top of my head. To me, however, one of the absolute biggest reasons for it is instant gratification and the absolute ease of getting almost anything we want.

It’s easier to buy things today than it ever has been. Thanks to the ease of use of credit cards and the access to nearly infinite shopping sites online, it is so easy to just fulfill any whim you might have at almost a moment’s notice. Think of something you want and you can probably find it online pretty quickly and have it shipped right to your door.

There’s no need to collect your cash. There’s no need to go to the store for most things, and even if you do, you just swipe a card to pay. The selection has never been more abundant.

It’s no wonder that many, many people fall into that trap of instant gratification. They can get almost anything they want and they can pay for it almost without thinking.

I’m not beyond the temptations of this trap, either. I often give into instant gratification. I’ll give you two examples.

Several months ago, there was an out-of-print board game I was very interested in owning because it had a great solo experience and it covered a historical period that I’m deeply interested in (the game was Navajo Wars, if you’re curious). I like playing complex solo boardgames in the evenings, particularly ones that simulate things like this, because it not only makes me think in terms of the game choices, it really helps me to learn about that situation.

Anyway, I could only find copies of Navajo Wars that were selling for multiples of the MSRP or else copies that were used and potentially damaged that were anywhere close to the MSRP. I talked myself out of the purchase… for a while. Mostly, that’s because there is a reprint of this game coming sometime in the next couple of years.

Flash forward a month. Out of nowhere, I stumbled upon a brand new copy of this game for only a bit more than MSRP. Almost instinctively, I bought the copy. I didn’t rationally think about it much at all – I just opened the wallet and spent the money.

Now, I was lucky. I hadn’t actually spent all of my “hobby money” for the month, so that absorbed a lot of it, and we are in good financial shape, so it wasn’t a financial disaster. Still, it was a pure impulse buy, one that was all about instant gratification.

I’ve played Navajo Wars once since then. Once. I’d love to play it again, don’t get me wrong, but it’s been tricky to set aside the block of time to get it to the table. The thing is, I knew it would be tricky to get it played, not only due to the time, but also due to the other competing interests that might fill that time.

It was an instant gratification purchase, one that wasn’t well considered, and one that I wouldn’t do again.

How about another example? I enjoy craft beers. I particularly enjoy the “gose” style, which often tastes kind of lemony, just a bit sour, and usually has an almost salty flavor, too.

Sometimes, when I’m out and about, I’ll find a bomber or a six-pack of a new kind of gose that I’ve never tried, or a good price on one of my favorites. The desire to immediately gratify that desire is very strong, and I often find myself buying it.

Instant gratification hits me sometimes, too.

I will say, however, that it hits me pretty rarely at this point, and my financial state is thankful for that. I have a number of strategies that I use to try to avoid instant gratification for my own financial sanity. Here are 12 of those strategies; perhaps they’ll help you with your own battles against instant gratification.

Strategy #1: Make Online Buying Harder

Instant gratification is more likely to happen when you minimize the time between seeing something that you want and actually purchasing it. That’s part of the reason that people can get into such trouble with credit card debt – the time to actually swipe a card is actually pretty small, which minimizes the time to actually think about a purchase.

Online, it’s even worse. Many online retailers store your credit card information and most browsers store your account sign-in information, meaning that with just a few clicks, you can go from viewing a product to having it on its way to your house. I can buy a new Kindle book on Amazon in just a few seconds. That doesn’t leave much time to actually think about the purchase.

One great way to keep yourself away from impulsive online buys is to simply delete all of that information in order to make online buying harder. Delete your credit card info and Paypal info from your online accounts, then clear out your web browser so that it doesn’t store login information and doesn’t keep you logged in at e-commerce sites.

What does that change? Take Amazon, for instance. Now, you’ll have to type in your email address and your password to log in, then you’ll have to manually enter your credit card information in order to make a purchase. Both are going to add significant time to your decision, giving your more time to think about whether or not this moment of instant gratification really makes sense.

Strategy #2: Leave Credit/Debit Cards at Home

If you go out and about with friends, just take enough cash along to cover the expenses you’re sure to incur and then leave your debit and credit cards at home. That way, if an extra expense does come up or an impulsive desire that you must fulfill pops up, you don’t have access to money in order to spend it on unnecessary things.

For example, if you go out to the bar and only have a $20 bill in your pocket, you’ll probably be limited to buying just a few drinks when you’re there. It doesn’t matter whether or not you decide on the spur of the moment that you’d like to have another drink or two, you won’t. Instant gratification simply won’t work because you won’t have the cash.

This is a great strategy almost any time you leave the house and know you’re going to a place where you might be tempted into impulsively buying something. If you limit your options for spending more than you planned, it means that you can’t give into the siren’s call of instant gratification.

Strategy #3: Write Down Impulsive Desires

I keep a pocket notebook with me at all times. I use it to write down ideas when they come to mind, take notes on things that I see, brainstorm when I’ve got a few free minutes, jot down things like grocery lists, and pretty much anything else. I “process” that notebook several times a day, going through the items and figuring out if there’s anything I need to do with them.

One thing I jot down that really helps with instant gratification is simply the name of the item that I’m desiring at that moment. Rather than buying it, I write it down in my little notebook.

This manages to feel like I’m taking some kind of action on that item, so it feels “complete” in some way. Often, the immediate desire drains away if I’ve written down the item. Later, when I’m processing the notebook, the desire might pop up again, but I have other strategies at that point.

Strategy #4: Have a Monthly Cash “Allowance”

Each month, I give myself a certain amount of cash that I’m allowed to freely spend on whatever I want, without question. If I see something I want and I have the cash for it, I can just buy it without any remorse.

I view that money as my “spontaneity money” and my “hobby money.” That money allows me to occasionally give into instant gratification without the overarching risk of damaging my finances. I can be spontaneous or impulsive, at least to an extent.

That money provides a strong limit to my instant gratification, though. Once it’s gone, my options for simply buying something on the spur of the moment go down drastically. Interestingly, it’s often that limit – and that awareness of it – that causes me to step back on occasion from potential situations of instant gratification, as I know that I’ll be unable to be spontaneous at other times during the month. I’ll choose to wait.

Strategy #5: Rethink Every Purchase Critically

Whenever I have a few minutes of relative mental downtime, whether it’s driving my child to a sports practice or waiting at a doctor’s office or going on a walk, one thing I often do is rethink some of my recent purchases. I go over my reasoning for why I decided to buy that book or that item at the store. Did that purchase really make sense?

What I’ve found is that using this practice all the time builds up a stronger natural sense of what a worthwhile purchase actually is and which purchases really aren’t going to be worthwhile over the long run. I recognize that I’m not as gratified by some purchases as I am by others.

This thought process naturally informs my future decisions. Over time, I begin to build a more intuitive sense of which purchases will actually bring me joy and which ones will not. That sense is built on the back of many, many purchases considered and reconsidered as I sit at a stoplight or as I lay in bed at night not quite able to drift off to sleep. I make better purchases today because I think critically about the purchases I made in the past.

Strategy #6: The 10-Second Rule

I’m standing in the store with something in my hand that I’m about to purchase. It’s not a need; it’s merely something I want. It’s pure instant gratification time.

But in those seconds as I stand there holding the item, before I purchase it, maybe I can think about this purchase a little bit. Will it really bring me the pleasure that I think it will? Can I buy it for less at another place? Is there another way to get the joy that I hope to get from this purchase?

Maybe I’ll decide that it’s a good move and go ahead with it. Maybe I won’t. In either case, I might as well use those moments when I’m waiting in line to evaluate what I’m about to do and whether it really makes sense.

I strive to spend a minimum of 10 focused seconds doing this. I try to be as critical as possible of the purchase I’m about to make, as I’m looking for reasons not to do it. The goal? If I’m not perfectly sure about this purchase, then I want to put that item right back on the shelf. If I do that, I’ll keep money in my pocket for something else down the road.

Strategy #7: The 30-Day Rule

Often, I’ll put down an item not because I don’t want it, but because I recognize that I might be able to find it at a better price elsewhere or because I want to really do my homework on it to figure out if there isn’t a better option for the problem I’m wanting to solve with that object. Yet, at the same time, I don’t want to forget that object.

As I mentioned in an earlier strategy, my solution there is to write down the name of the item so that I can look it up later. What I usually do in those situations is give the item 30 days. I’ll add it to an Amazon list or to a note somewhere and research it a little bit during those thirty days, but mostly I’ll wait.

If, after 30 days, I still want the item, even after doing some homework, then I’ll give the item much more serious consideration.

What I’ve found is that most of the time my desire and interest in purchases fades away. I become much less interested in the item and after the thirty days are up, I scarcely know why I was interested in the first place. When that happens, I just cross the item off of that list and move on with life. I have the money in my pocket that I would have otherwise spent on something that I didn’t even want just a month later.

Strategy #8: Ask Your Social Network to Borrow Things

One powerful thing to consider, if you’re just about to give into instant gratification, is whether or not you can borrow such an item from your social network. Is this something that you can get the value out of by simply asking a neighbor or by posting a simple request on Facebook?

For example, let’s say I’ve got the idea in the back of my head that I want to clear out the garden, but I’m not sure if I have a good hoe. Did I ever replace that rusty one in the garage? I’m pretty sure I didn’t… but then, right before me, is a new hoe. Do I buy it? It’s very tempting. It’s right on the front of my mind. Buying it would guarantee I could do that task in the front of my head…

But let’s say I don’t buy it. Couldn’t I just borrow the neighbor’s hoe? They’d let me, without question, provided I brought it back in good shape. If they didn’t, I have many friends who have hoes.

If you’re considering buying an item right now because you want to do some task right now, breathe for a second and ask yourself if you can just borrow the item. You’d be surprised what you can borrow, and simply borrowing it allows you to have the instant gratification of having the item in your hand without having to shell out the cash.

Strategy #9: Don’t Shop Socially

When you shop with friends, you add an additional dynamic to the experience of purchasing things: social pressure. Like it or not, the presence of other people does have an impact on what you purchase. You want to please them and impress them, and often making a purchase of an item that you’re both looking at can feel as though it’s accomplishing that goal.

In reality, the opinion of another shopper should not influence you to buy something unless that person is specifically there to aid in a planned purchase (like when I go with my father to the hardware store to look at tools, for example). If that person is there just to hang out, then you shouldn’t be making a purchase based on their input, as that purchase likely boils down to instant gratification.

The solution is easy: Don’t shop socially. If you want to hang out with friends, do it at home or at a venue where you won’t be socially pressured in any way to splurge on an item on the spur of the moment. Social pressure can really skew your wants in that particular instant, and it’s generally in a bad way in terms of your finances, so shop alone.

Strategy #10: Hang Out at Home or in Non-Commercial Areas

If you’re just spending time by yourself or just hanging out with others without a shopping or spending purpose in mind, don’t hang out in areas where you might spend money. Find a non-commercial place to hang out, like a park or someone’s home.

This is heavily tied into the previous strategy of not shopping socially, but it goes beyond that. Often, many people go to commercial venues just to spend time and hang out together and commercial venues are simply loaded with marketing tricks and other temptations to subtly convince you to spend money.

Don’t let that happen. Unless you’re there for a purpose, avoid hanging out in commercial areas. Your wallet will be glad that you did.

Strategy #11: Adopt Non-Consumerist Hobbies

For me, one of the biggest sources of instant gratification is my hobbies. Going into a store related to one of my key hobbies, like a bookstore or a board gaming store or a home brewing store, is like a child walking into a candy store. If I’m not careful, I’m going to see something I want, and if I’m not doubly careful, I’m going to give into instant gratification.

One of the best strategies for avoiding this is to adopt non-consumerist hobbies – ones where you don’t have to buy stuff to enjoy it – or to accentuate the non-consumerist elements of your hobbies. For example, rather than jumping into the instant gratification of a new board game, I’d rather focus on getting 25 or 50 plays out of some of my favorite games that I already have. Rather than jumping into the instant gratification of buying a new book, I’ll just go somewhere and read and try to work toward my goal of 100 books read this year.

Or, better yet, I’ll continue my quest to walk every numbered trail in every state park in Iowa (at least the ones that are easily accessible). That’s a hobby that doesn’t run any risk at all of giving into instant gratification.

Strategy #12: Intentionally Wait and Enjoy the Anticipation

Even after all of these strategies, I’ll sometimes decide that I’m going to buy something anyway. And that’s okay.

But before I do so, I think about one last thing. Do I really need this today? Would I play this game today? Would I read this book today?

And, if the answer is no, why not wait a little bit? Why buy this book if I’m not going to read it in the next week? I can just wait until it’s a bit closer to the time when I’ll actually read it, and then it’s okay for me to buy it.

Why do this? Anticipation. Anticipation can be a great deal of fun. It’s all about thinking about the thing you’re going to buy and how you’ll enjoy it when you get it. It’s about giving yourself something to look forward to.

That way, when the time comes where you actually will immediately use that item, you can go ahead and buy it. It’s like the peak of that anticipation. Even better, it pushes aside any new sources of impulsiveness that might pop up in the interim.

I’ve been doing this with a particular board game for weeks. I’m going to buy it just before the next community game day that I attend. I’m really looking forward to it. I’m also glad I haven’t bought it already because, if I had, I wouldn’t be anticipating it so much and I might have moved onto something else.

Final Thoughts

The purpose of all of these strategies is simple. It’s all about pushing aside instant gratification and being a little patient with non-essential purchases and about finding ways to still be spontaneous. Doing that will save the average person quite a lot of money.

That doesn’t mean life has to be “un-fun,” though. It just means that you’re a little more selective and nuanced, so that the times when you give into instant gratification, the results are really meaningful and they last for a while. They don’t wind up gathering dust in a corner in a week. They don’t wind up forgotten in a few days.

It’s okay to have instant gratification sometimes, but when you do, you want it to be meaningful and to actually last. That’s what these strategies are really all about: tossing aside the less-meaningful impulsive things and keeping the ones that really matter. That’s good for you and especially good for your finances.

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Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.