The downside of delayed gratification

December 21, 2023

My friend held his hands up, the side of his pinkies facing me, to represent a spectrum.

He said there is the extreme on this end of the spectrum, emphasizing his left hand, and the extreme on the other end, emphasizing his right hand.

The answer?

It’s always somewhere in the middle.

At the time, he was referring to “control”. Having no control over your life vs. trying to control everything in your life. These were the extremes.

So, rather than flipping to the other extreme when we realize a habit or belief is unhealthy for us, we try to come closer to the middle.

I’ve come to think about this moment for any habit or belief I hold:

Do I really need to go to the other end of the spectrum for this habit or belief or do I just need to try to get closer to the middle?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about this in terms of “delayed gratification”. Specifically, as it relates to money.

I’ve noticed a recurring theme amongst the clients I work with and often in myself: we are too good at delayed gratification.

Often, we put off our dream vacation, moving to the place we really want to live, or leaving a miserable job.

We are dedicated to our future selves but often to the detriment of our present-day selves.

The worst part? It’s completely illogical.

We fear running out of money, our spending getting out of control, or having to work for a paycheck forever.

If we let up, even a little bit, and allow ourselves to spend now, things will quickly go off the rails.

I know this feeling well. I’ve suffered from this belief many times.

Let’s address the elephant in the room:

Most people could benefit from increasing the skill of "delayed gratification".

23-year-old me definitely could have benefited from it.

But as I’ve gotten better at the skill of delayed gratification, I have noticed myself surpassing the middle of the spectrum and venturing too far to the other extreme.

No one talks about this.

Because most of the world spends too much money and spends no time thinking about their future.

But after working with dozens of clients and interacting with hundreds of people in the FIRE/Work Optional movement who are on the other side of the spectrum, I’ve realized we need to talk about the harm of being too good at this.

So, how do we create this balance?

We base our decisions in reality.

This is easily one of my favorite parts of my job: I get to bring cold hard numbers to the situation.

We can start to challenge our fears and our anxieties around money with logic.

This may look like:

  • If I shift some dollars this year from savings to spending, what does that do to my work-optional goals?
  • Based on what I am spending today, how close am I to work optional? (many of my clients have no idea that they are CoastFI: they don’t have to save another dollar to be work optional in X years)
  • If I give up just one year of “savings” so I can afford to leave the job I hate - what is the impact over my lifetime?

Maybe it will have a large impact or maybe it won’t.

The point is - you should be aware of the impact of your decisions.

If you can take your first-class European vacation this year with minimal or zero impact to your work optional goals, wouldn’t you want to know that?

Instead, most people I talk to you or work with don’t take the time to run the numbers, but still tell themselves, “I can’t afford to do that”.

I think most of you would be surprised that the financial impact is not as large as you may think it is.

But also -

Please don’t make every decision solely based on the impact to your finances.

Consider your time, your energy, your relationships.

A decision solely rooted in the numbers is not an informed decision.

We spend so much time on these fears:

  • What if this vacation derails my progress?
  • What if moving to the more expensive city destroys my work optional goals?
  • What if I can’t make as much money working in a different industry even if I enjoy it more?

And not enough time on these fears:

  • What if I’m not physically healthy enough to take that Asia backpacking trip in 20 years?
  • What if I never get around to spending more quality time with my children?
  • What if I spend most of my life working a job I hate?

You do not need to delay all gratification.

And you do not need to think only about the present day.

You need a balance.

The way to make an informed decision:

Run the numbers.

Introduce a healthy fear of missing out on experiences you can only have today.

And take care of present you and future you.

The answer is not to spend like there is no tomorrow.

And the answer is also not to be so good at delayed gratification that you run out of life to live.