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What is Delayed Gratification and How Important Is It?


Have you ever heard of the term, “delayed gratification“? The term may sound a bit intimidating at first, but it is truly not a difficult phrase to understand. Simply put, it basically means that you avoid splurging today so that you can reap an even larger reward in the future.

The Marshmallow Test

Back in the late 1950’s, children (ages 4 to 6) were tested to see which of them could delay their gratification. Here is how the test went:

One child entered a closed room with a table and no other distractions. The adult that was leading the study had a single marshmallow with her and told the child that if he did not eat the marshmallow in the next 15 minutes, then she would give him a second marshmallow. The adult then left the room and viewed the actions of the child.

Apparently, kids really love marshmallows because the study tells of some kids pulling their pigtails, others kicking the table, and still others caressed the marshmallows (most likely with drool nearly coming out of their mouths). Ha, and there were some others that simply popped the marshmallow into their mouth immediately when the adult left the room. They wanted that marshmallow now! 🙂

The Marshmallow Study Continues

The truly fascinating part of this study was when they checked up on their test subjects years later. As it turns out, the kids that waited for 15 minutes and received the second marshmallow actually did much better on their SATs than those that did not wait. In addition, as an adult, these individuals that waited the 15 minutes had a better understanding of future consequences based on their actions today.

Future Consequences of Instant Gratification

Do you know people that just go out an buy whatever they want whenever they want? Sometimes they even decide to go into debt over it because they want it so badly. Their immediate decision makes them happy in the short term, but that feeling of excitement and joy quickly wears off and may even leave them with some pretty big payments each month.

I had a friend like this in my younger years. He had the brand new gaming system, a brand new car, a top of the line sound system, and all of the latest clothing fashions. Looking from the outside in, he had a fabulous life and was the envy of many of his friends. However, looking at him 10 years later, it is clear that many of his friends are now passing him by financially. Sure, he still has the fancy clothes and cars, but his bank account is always hovering near zero while the rest of us are putting money away for the short term and for our retirements.

If you cannot keep yourself from buying things immediately without thinking about the future consequences, you may have a very difficult future. I once heard this quote, which pertains incredibly well to this situation:

“When I was faced with a difficult decision, I used to always choose the easiest route and life just got harder and harder. Now, in my wiser years I have chosen to take the harder route and my life continues to get easier and easier.”

Sometimes it is best to ignore the shiny things in life. Quite often, they just lead you away from a prosperous future. Fortunately, I have been able to avoid many shiny objects in the last two years and my life and I can see wonderful things on the horizon. The quote that I placed above didn’t have nearly as much meaning when I initially heard it than what it does at this moment in my life. The quote is absolutely true. Make those difficult decisions and delay your gratification, and life will just keep getting easier. Sure, you might not impress your friends for a couple of years, but is it really worth ruining the rest of your life?

Are you working to delay your gratification?

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My name is Derek, and I have my Bachelors Degree in Finance from Grand Valley State University. After graduation, I was not able to find a job that fully utilized my degree, but I still had a passion for Finance! So, I decided to focus my passion in the stock market. I studied Cash Flows, Balance Sheets, and Income Statements, put some money into the market and saw a good return on my investment. As satisfying as this was, I still felt that something was missing. I have a passion for Finance, but I also have a passion for people. If you have a willingness to learn, I will continue to teach.


  1. Coincidentally, I wrote about delayed gratification today as well! I like the idea of a “waiting period” before buying something. If at the end of the waiting period you still want it…AND you can afford it, then go nuts. But many times you’ll just forget about it, or decide it’s really not worth it.

    • Nice! I like the idea of a waiting period too. I typically adhere to the “sleep on it” rule. If I wake up and still think the purchase is a good idea, then I will go for it. Typically, it’s really not that important to me and I can do without it.

  2. Thank you! Hit right on the spot. You have just put more gasoline on my fire to continue working on my objectives.

    • Glad to help you out David! Delayed gratification really is the key to success in this world – especially when it comes time to retire.

  3. I got myself into credit card debt after college. I learned a lot from that experience and have learned to delay gratification ever since. If I don’t have the cash, I don’t buy it. Going into debt just takes me further from my ultimate goal – becoming financially independent.

    • What if you do have the cash though? Do you ever still delay your gratification?

      • By choice we now normally live on about 55-60% of our combined income. That means that virtually every week there is a substantial amount of unallocated money piling up in the account. We’re essentially living one income and the second one is “excess”. At any moment we could theroetically afford most of the normal temptations that confront us on a daily basis, and it wouldn’t cause us to incur debt. The difference is that we cut our old spending ways down to the current level so that all that excess can be used to boost retirement savings and pay off the mortgage much faster than required. Retiring early is our goal and every spending decision is made that that objective in mind. Once in a while we do spend on something non-essential and as a result have that much less to transfer out to savings or the mortgage for the week. Even when we “can afford” it and have the cash on hand, we still have to remind ourselves of the bigger goals and carefully consider anything that is counter productive to getting there. Sometimes I think having the funds and still forcing yourself to say no, or at least not now, it the hardest thing to do. You only have yourself to answer to. Nobody will charge us interest or seize an asset if we don’t pay down the mortgage as fast as we’re planning to. Other than not retiring as early as scheduled, there is no penalty for not sticking to our plan. Well, other than looking yourself in the mirror and saying “did you stick to the commitments you made to yourselves:?

        • Well said JMK. It is definitely a lot more difficult to sock money away and to pay off the mortgage because there is really no penalty if you miss a few extra payments here and there. But, you know that you’re postponing your greater goal of early retirement with each non-essential purchase. But, it is good to treat yourself once in a while. When I get my mortgage down to $40,000 (hopefully in the next couple of days), I’m going to buy myself a brand new $450 road bike for my triathlon races. 🙂 And, when I get it down to $25,000 I’ll probably buy myself a tablet. Any other spending probably won’t happen because I would rather hit my greater goal of paying off my mortgage this year.

  4. I’m definitely about delayed gratification, but my wife is not as much (though she’s not totally impulsive). The differences have created some friction now and then but it’s part of learning and adapting, which we both do.

    • Yeah, I am probably more like you MB, but too much delayed gratification can be a hazard too, especially if you aren’t having any fun today. It is a tough mix to get right, but it mostly depends on the compromises between you and your spouse. Best of luck to you!

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