saving money

The Psychology of Delayed Gratification: How To Save Even When You Don’t Want To

Everyone has a vague idea in the back of their head that they should be saving money. If it was that easy, though, everyone would be doing it. But they’re not! Most people struggle to save money, for many reasons, and if you have this problem, know that you’re not the only one. The marketing industry keeps up-to-date with psychological research and they are using this research to make it as easy as possible for you to spend your money!

The Psychology of Impulse Control and Delayed Gratification

As babies, we have no impulse control – that is, when we want something, we want it more than anything else and we want it NOW. That’s normal and natural and as we grow into toddlers, children, teenagers and eventually adults, so grows our capacity for impulse control. Delayed gratification – that is, not getting what you want now but instead getting it later – is something which we become capable of as we learn to control our impulses and understand concepts such as not having one marshmallow now, so that you can have two marshmallows in 10 minutes (a study that has been done with young children) – or the adult equivalent, not spending that hundred now, so that you can save it and earn interest into the thousands over time.

Some primal impulses/instincts are retained through to adulthood

The thing is, even though we learn how to control our impulses as we grow, we still naturally retain many emotional triggers as adults – everyone likes sweet things, for instance (nutrient-seeking from berries and honey); another two examples of universal human desires are fun (natural highs from feel-good hormones) and sex (procreation and the survival of the species). These are primal instincts which have been serving our survival and cooperation since humanity evolved.

Understanding how marketing techniques trick our brains into wanting products

Marketing techniques tap into our primal desires and link those desires with products that we’re being tempted to buy. For instance, a beautiful young woman is draped over the shiny convertible, or a handsome young man is shown walking on the beach with a bottle of coke. All the people at the fast food chain are dancing around and having fun to great music. Before we know it, our impulse control is short-circuited and our brains tell us that we need this thing to feel as happy as the people in the ad. With the advent of credit cards with sky-high spending limits, we no longer even need to have the money in our possession to purchase a product, so we are enabled to make the purchase fast while we are in that vulnerable state of having had primal instincts aroused. We can just swipe the plastic and have the gratification of the purchase instantly – and this, in turn, also reinforces the high that we get from acquiring new things, thus consolidating the habit.

Small amounts add up to big savings

One of the reasons we have trouble saving money is because we imagine we need to save large sums of money for a long, long time to actually get anywhere. This puts us off the initial idea of saving because it seems like such a far-off return that we can’t even imagine the end reward. If you can’t envision the reward you’re going to get for doing something difficult, then it makes it pretty hard to get up the motivation and to stick to the cause throughout. And it’s true that if you save money over a relatively long period of time (in contrast to simply spending your income as soon as you have it) you can make a very handsome return: at average stock market rates it is possible to double a sum of money over approximately 8 years for very little effort.

Your vision of the future helps you stick to your saving today

It only takes a small purchase here and a small purchase there to add up: if you buy a coffee every day you’re at work, you can easily spend $1000 in a year just on coffee. Saved instead, that money could have bought a handsome coffee machine and a fancy insulated mug – which would mean you would never had to buy a coffee for the commute again. Armed with your vision of owning a shiny new coffee machine, your rational mind stands a much better chance against your emotional impulse next time you drive past a tempting coffee chop.

Avoid involving your willpower

Of course, it’s not easy to say no to the impulse to buy. Here are some ideas: cancel catalogues, put up a “no junk mail” sign, avoid the mall, refuse to go “social shopping” (try a walk or a BBQ instead), unsubscribe to online store email mailings, never go grocery shopping (or any type of shopping) while hungry, participate in pre-tax government contributions and employer paycheck deduction schemes, create a less-accessible bank account and have a percentage of your weekly pay placed automatically into it, and set up automatic voluntary contributions to your superannuation fund. Freeze your credit cards in an ice block in the freezer, and take cash out your bank account to buy essentials. In short, avoid confrontations with your willpower – your emotional impulses will usually win. Expenditures somehow magically stretch to fill the budget allowed – so simply limit your budget by reducing the amount of money available in your everyday account.

Delayed gratification gets easier

In many ways, delayed gratification is a skill that is learedt and honed over the years. A steady saver who is 5 years older than you may have not been such a good saver 5 years ago. It is never to late to start and you will find that as you go on, it does get easier. Seeing a lump sum grow in the bank and watching it begin earning you a decent amount of interest is exciting and rewarding – your money is making money for you! You will find it increasingly easy to forgo that coffee, or the new computer or car as you know that you can make your money grow by holding on to it.

You will never regret saving money

Also, by saving money, you get the self-satisfaction of knowing that you are stronger than the marketing campaigns which bombard us; you gain confidence and self-esteem knowing that you can achieve something that frankly, many others never manage. You will also reduce your carbon footprint by consuming less stuff, you’ll enjoy a less cluttered home, and finally, you’ll enjoy the security and reduced stress that having savings will bring to your life.

By High Yield Savings Accounts

The founder and editor of with a passion for personal finance and experience in the financial industry.