Like most people, I am not immune to the idea that maybe, just maybe, there really is some undiscovered secret or elixir out there that will solve all financial problems and allow us all to live happily ever after. Several recent studies, however, bring us back to fundamental ideas that are no secret at all.
The first study, by NFO World Group, concluded that more people are living paycheck to paycheck without a financial cushion or plan. The increase was attributed to the weak economy and rising medical and education costs. There were few differences across age, gender or ethnicity, and even the relatively affluent were not immune; more than 34% of employees earning more than $75,000 a year rely on their latest paycheck to get by.
At the same time, according to retirement publisher Plansponsor, fewer employees are participating in their employer’s 401(k) plans. Participation dropped 3.6% in 2003, to 72.6%, after a 2.5% drop in 2002. Contrary to media reports, employers have been improving the plans, with more employers offering investment advice, fewer plans offering company stock, and the overwhelming majority of plans retaining matching contributions.
The third tidbit is less a study than a theory advanced by Jonathan Clements in the Wall Street Journal. He suggests that low interest rates and increasing house sizes have caused many people to overcommit to investments in their homes. Not only do larger mortgages crowd out other investments such as retirement, but it is possible that today’s big homes will be poor long-term investments due to changing demographics.
These situations violate basic principles of personal financial management. Almost everyone agrees, at least on an intellectual level, that taking a long term view makes sense, but putting this view into practice is more difficult. Likewise, living below, or at least within, one’s means is obviously more difficult than it seems. This is not to criticize those with legitimate financial problems. The fact is, though, that there is a huge range between what we need (housing, clothing, food, education, health care, transportation) and what many of us want (larger houses, latest fashions, dining out, unhealthy lifestyles, late model cars). Education can be deserving of additional spending but, ironically, it often takes a back seat to other wants.
Empires have been built and fortunes made by packaging simple ideas, so here is the antidote to most of these problems and the essence of the message of popular financial gurus: delayed gratification.
The notions of planning ahead, saving for specific events and forgoing discretionary purchases in favor of saving have been lost in this age of consumerism, misplaced sense of entitlement and seemingly uncontrollable impulse. I am not suggesting that we should live like misers and should not enjoy the fruits of our labors, but there are real tradeoffs between current consumption and future resources. Understand the tradeoffs, make the decision that is best for you, and don’t cry about the consequences later.
Delayed gratification has the undeserved reputation for being dull or harsh, but it actually has unrecognized advantages. Making conscious financial decisions allows us to retain control of our lives rather than simply chasing financial obligations. Many important life decisions and options are made more complicated, or are eliminated outright, because of financial constraints and an unwillingness to challenge the lifestyle to which we have become accustomed. Career changes, moves, marriage, children and retirement all become more manageable with financial control and forethought.
Delaying major purchases also enhances the gratification part of the concept. Isn’t it far better to enjoy life with a sense of accomplishment and less financial concern than to have that enjoyment diminished by the burden of financial stress?
The discipline required by delayed gratification is learned behavior, and impulsive spending and keeping up with the Joneses needs to be unlearned. This effort should start with managing small expenditures and setting a realistic short term goal. Once the benefits are apparent, larger and longer changes can be made. (Deeper emotional issues surrounding money may require professional counseling.) We can also create learning experiences for children well before they are managing their own financial affairs. Explaining the choice between spending money now (say, on a CD) or saving it for later (perhaps for a new CD player), and sticking with the consequences of the child’s decision, is an invaluable lesson that will pay dividends for life.