Updated on 11.17.11

Some Thoughts on Delayed Gratification

Trent Hamm

Over the past few years, I’ve come to believe that learning to appreciate delayed gratification is one of the best things a person can learn in terms of their psyche and their finances. Here are a few stories illustrating what I mean.

Watching your garden grow This past year, I really got into our garden. I went out pretty much every day to check on it, often pulling a few weeds or doing something else related to it.

In years past, I somewhat viewed this as a chore. This year, though, I began to really notice how the plants were slowly growing each day I went out there. They were a bit bigger. This one had started to blossom. I could finally see some small snap beans. Look, at last there are the beginnings of some squash.

Those little visits became a pleasure themselves as I began to appreciate where my food came from and also anticipate the vegetables that were coming.

Approaching a big goal One of our biggest goals is paying off our house. Sarah and I have been working towards it for the past four years, making extra mortgage payments when it’s been reasonable and keeping careful track of our progress.

Since we’ve been so careful to track this, it’s been a lot of fun watching how our little actions have translated into a snowball effect against our debt. The balance goes down. Our normal monthly payment pays a bigger part of the principal than before. An extra payment knocks our balance down a little more.

Our little moves directly translate into a small part of something big, and it’s a lot of fun to watch the progress as we go along.

Waiting for an item A few months ago, using a gift certificate I received for my birthday, I preordered a board game, Kingdom Builder. It’s a game created by the same person who created Dominion, one of my favorite games I’ve ever played, so I decided to give his new creation a chance.

Anyway, once I preordered that item, around the middle of August or so, I found myself anticipating the item quite a bit. I subscribed to a few forums related to the game. I participated in some discussions about it. I read the rules for the game, as well as some early reviews.

Even more interesting, all this focus on a game that I knew I would be getting in the mail eventually kept me from spending money on other items. I might consider buying something, but then I’d tell myself, “Well, I have this other thing coming in the mail soon, so why buy even more stuff?”

The anticipation became part of the fun. It also became something of a guard against buying other things.

Delayed gratification is the common thread here. When you have something immediately, you get a big burst of excitement and joy, but that quickly fades. If you get used to that burst of gratification, it becomes something of an addiction. You must have a perk now.

If you hold off on that gratification, the anticipation itself becomes fun. You have more time to plan out what exactly you’re going to do. You have more time to savor the options before you.

Most importantly, you have a chance to enjoy the journey. Instant gratification takes that option away from you. At the same time, instant gratification means that you’re going to be spending more, because the joy doesn’t last very long.

Learn to enjoy the anticipation. Your spirit and your wallet will thank you.

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  1. Tracy says:

    Neither of the first two examples actually involve delayed gratification.

  2. lurker carl says:

    Here’s an example I remember about delayed gratification. Someone gives you a candy to eat. If you wait ten minutes before eating it, you’ll get more candy. Eat it within ten minutes and you’re out of luck.

    I don’t get the delayed gratification connection with gardening, best of luck getting plants to mature any faster than they do. Delayed gratificaton with the board game would be waiting until it’s 1/2 price, rather than pre-ordering it and waiting for delivery. Mortgage prepayment is a stretch. Perhaps self control or patience are a better terms than delayed gratification.

  3. Other Jonathan says:

    I agree with the previous two – these aren’t really examples of delayed gratification. An example I like though, from a financial perspective anyway, is to use something longer than you normally would before replacing it. Our couch has seen better days, for example. It’s not in bad shape by any means, but a new one would look better. However, if I replaced it now, not only would it cost me $1,000 or more, but it would also help push me into a cycle of always having a nice new couch, and 3 years down the road I’d be tempted to replace it again. By keeping the couch I have, I put off spending the $1,000 for a while (time value of money is at play here) AND I keep my “couch life-cycle” expectations in check.

  4. elyn says:

    I live in a house of delayed gratification. It is over 100 years old and spent 30 years of its life as a rental owned by a Very Tacky Cheap Landlord before we became its’ owners. There are so many projects to do, some structural, some cosmetic. We absolutely have to be skilled at delaying gratification in order to be smart about what projects to do first. It is unbelievably satisfying, though, when we get to do the fun, pretty projects that we waited for while attacking the structural, practical ones. Another 50 years, and this house will be perfect!

  5. Baley says:

    I’d say pre-ordering a video game is about the opposite of delayed gratification.

  6. Nick says:

    Haha. Waiting for an item to be shipped to you and waiting to purchase an item are two completely opposite things.

    Delayed gratification would be if you said you won’t order Kingdom Builder until you paid off your mortgage.

  7. Rockledge says:

    You know, this post could almost be talking about another, very popular human activity I’m not going to actually name because I’ll get censored. I laughed when I realized that. Suffice it to say that, yes, sometimes half the fun is just getting there.

    Maybe a better title for the post would have been “anticipation” rather than “delayed gratification.”

  8. Riki says:

    Delayed Gratification: The ability to forgo an immediate pleasure or reward in order to gain a more substantial one later.

    Sorry, Trent. None of your examples are about delayed gratification. Enjoying a process? Taking the time to appreciate little things? Enjoying anticipation? Sure. Absolutely. All of those things are good and you are right that we need to see the trees in the forest, so to speak.

    But you certainly didn’t write an article about delaying gratification and you’re starting to come off as awfully obtuse.

  9. jackie.n says:

    ditto #7 and #8

  10. kristine says:

    “Delayed gratificaton with the board game would be waiting until it’s 1/2 price, rather than pre-ordering it and waiting for delivery.” Exactly!

    Prepaying a mortgage is accelerating a reward, and making steady progress, not at all delayed gratification.

    The difference is purposeful and deliberate delay, not merely waiting out the due course of events, not mater how slow. Delayed gratification can involve waiting and anticipation, but not all waiting and anticipation are delayed gratification. (Gotta love subsets!)

    Much better approached as the joy of anticipation. Which brings me to Rockledge- made me laugh!

  11. deRuiter says:

    Delayed gratification would be NOT buying the board game and using that money to prepay on the mortgage instead, then buying the game when the mortgage was finished. Posters above are correct, the title should be “Anticipation.”

  12. Tom says:

    I will play devil’s advocate here, rather than being the 12th person to say that word doesn’t mean what you think it means, and argue that gardening is delayed gratification. I’ll go off of Riki’s definition:
    Delayed Gratification: The ability to forgo an immediate pleasure or reward
    …for example, doing a tedious chore like garden work rather than playing your cool new board game…
    in order to gain a more substantial one later.

    …ie, satisfying your need to eat with a bountiful harvest.
    Fine, maybe it was an awkward illustration, and the other two examples are more cumbersome, but I think it works. He even had the side benefit of beginning to actually enjoy the process.

  13. getagrip says:

    The other problem with with these examples is that sometimes waiting too long isn’t gratifying. You save and scrimp for that new toy/gadget/item you really wanted, imagining the fun of it. Sadly you can raise it up mentally to the point that when you finally get it, it proves to be a let down. Have to be careful of keeping your expectations realistic.

    A big part of this is you need to see some progress, no matter how small, towards a goal.

  14. Darla says:

    I agree about delayed vs instant gratification. There’s something very pleasing about the anticipation of an item which is about the closest adults come to feeling like a ‘kid at Christmas’.

  15. Deborah says:

    Trent – Regarding the Reader Mailbag question about umbrella insurance: I agreed with your answer until you said the poster should get life insurance before thinking about an umbrella policy. Despite what the insurance industry would have us believe, life insurance is to protect those who are dependent upon the income of the insured not to function as a savings account. Since the poster stated she is single and has no dependents, why do you feel she should have life insurance?

  16. slccom says:

    Landlords can lose their entire net worth with a single meth lab in a property, or even if a tenant is smoking meth in the property. And no, it isn’t easy to find insurance coverage — insurance companies don’t get rich paying claims, and these are too common and humongous.

    Personally, I’m not interested in the risk.

    Umbrella insurance is really, really cheap peace of mind. It doesn’t take much to make you wish you had it — the neighbor kid running over her foot mowing your lawn; the unlicensed, uninsured roofer falls off the ladder and lives the rest of his life with quadriplegia, the neighbor’s kid falls into the swimming pool and becomes severely brain damaged after being in the water for 15 minutes, etc. A million dollars may not go far in these scenarios, but they aren’t far-fetched and it goes a long ways in most cases. Reduce you need for umbrella policies by making sure that you only hire people with worker’s compensation insurance for home chores. Costs more upfront, can save a whole bunch of money down the line.

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