The Science and Art of Delayed Gratification

I like my marshmallows golden brown and gooey inside.

I am not a financial wizard and certainly no expert in the area of investing.    No, the real driver of our modest success in growing net worth comes down to one simple behavior.

We are millionaires because we have mastered learned the art of delayed gratification – And You Can Too!

A person’s ability to put off a reward for the promise of receiving an even bigger reward in the future is known as delayed gratification.  It is not difficult to understand why this skill is extremely important in the context of building wealth and achieving financial independence.

Like almost all human behavior, there is an element of “nature” to one’s ability to delay gratification. However, I believe that everyone can develop this skill if they arm themselves with the necessary knowledge to frame financial decisions in the right light.   

The Science

The first major study of delayed gratification was in the 1960’s and became known as the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment.  In the experiment, children between the ages of four and six years old were given the choice to have one marshmallow at that moment, or wait fifteen  minutes for two marshmallows.  These same children were then studied in their 20’s.  The findings were quite interesting:

  • Parents generally described those children who were able to delay gratification as pre-schoolers, as being better adjusted and more successful in young adulthood.
  • The minutes each child was able to delay gratification had a statistically significant correlation to future success metrics such as SAT scores and Body Mass Index.

Additional follow-up studies on the original Marshmallow Experiment participants using modern brain imaging were even more interesting.   It turns out that people who are more successful at delaying gratification are using a different part of their brain when attempting to delay.

The successful delayers consistently showed higher activity in their prefrontal cortex.  The prefrontal cortex is the part of brain associated with higher level thought and reasoning.

The non-delayers showed higher activity in the ventral striatum region which is part of the limbic system and associated with  reward perception, motivation, reinforcement and addictive behaviors.


Why do people use different parts of the brain when trying to delay gratification?  Researchers have found that it is related to the strategies they employ.

Non-delayers tend to focus on the “hot” qualities of the thing they are trying to resist.  Examples of hot qualities are taste, smell, feel, etc…

Successful delayers tend to focus on the colder qualities of the item, such as shape, functionality,  number, etc..

Other studies of hot and cold strategies have found that the most successful delayers take it one step further by focusing on the “hot” qualities of a competing item.  For example, when faced with the temptation of a marshmallow, instead of focusing on the sweet, gooey goodness of the marshmallow itself,  they instead focus on the buttery, salty goodness of pop-corn.

How does this relate to the Zeroes becoming millionaires?

As I have written before, the Zero’s have not always been financially responsible role models.  We have made many mistakes and to be honest, in our twenty years of marriage, we have really only been on the right financial track for the last ten.

Early in our marriage, we were the poster children for NON-DELAYERS.  We wanted it all and we wanted it now.  We were both college graduates and newly minted parents.  We convinced ourselves we were doing what we were supposed to do.  What everyone does.

We bought a house that was at the edge of what we could afford and more than forty miles from our place of work.  You know, because “it was a better deal.”

Before our marriage, Mrs. Zero bought a new car on credit and then proceeded to make the monthly payments using funds from student loans (ouch).

Because we did not have any savings for emergencies and were living paycheck to paycheck, we borrowed significant sums on credit cards and then made the minimum payments for years before finally managing to pay off the principle.

The Art

So how did we turn it around?

Looking back, I now realize we did not have the necessary knowledge to “paint” competing choices with the appropriate hot and cold qualities.  

As an example, when we purchased our first home, we had not trained ourselves to consider the cold hard facts:

  • We did not have a 20% down payment, so we would be required to spend $150 per month on Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI).
  • The monthly payments consumed 35% of our after tax income.
  • The 80 mile roundtrip to work each day would cost ~$160 per month in fuel and put significant wear and tear on our cars.
  • Once purchased, there would be no money left over for savings or to handle emergency expenditures.

Instead, we painted each home choice in the glow of their hot qualities:

  •  Ahhh, imagine how cute our little Zero #1 would be playing in this spectacular yard.  I can teach him to fish in the lake in the back yard.
  • I love the view of the woods from our screened back porch.
  • The open floor plan will be great for entertaining.
  • There is a boat launch nearby.  When we purchase a boat, it will be so convenient!  (we bought a boat a few months after the house…  dumb-dum-dum—–dum).

Five years later,  Mr. Zero found a new job in a new city.  By that time, we had begun to educate ourselves in the basics of financial responsibility.  We had read Dave Ramsey’s excellent little book Priceless, and the enlightening Millionaire Next Door.  

Our growing knowledge of basic personal finance, combined with a very strong desire to not repeat past mistakes, enabled us to view the purchase of our second home in a more analytical (cold) way.  We ultimately bought a modest home 5 miles from Mr. Zero’s work.  The home was below what we could afford.  We considered all our expenses to ensure there would be some income left for savings and emergencies.

Fast forward another eight years.  It was at this time that Mr. Zero stumbled upon the Financial Independence and Retire Early (FIRE) community.   Guys like Mr. Money Mustache, Jim Collins, and many others have given me the knowledge that I now keep at the forefront of my mind and use to paint every financial decision I make:

  • If we stick to our plan, FIRE is achievable in a relatively short period of time.
  • The freedom to spend our time any way we choose is going to be unbelievably GRATIFYING.


17 Comments on “The Science and Art of Delayed Gratification”

  1. Great post Mr Zero!

    I was born with the ability to focus on future rewards rather than instant gratification. It’s of the many reasons why I’m happy living as close to the poverty line as my wife will let us.

    I still haven’t figured out how to cultivate this superpower in others. I naturally want to model how current decisions affect future outcomes in a spreadsheet. “This $1 candybar is costing you $1*(1+R)^N in future consumption!”, but somehow that isn’t very convincing to others. It turns out I’m not very charismatic.

    1. Thanks professor. I am similar in that I tend to find the purchase of stuff stressful and therefore typically err on the side of frugality. That said, I would be lying if I said I am immune to the “hot” qualities of certain potential purchases (boats mostly).

      Good luck in your pursuit of the persuasive arts.

  2. When I started on the journey to financial independence, I read and was told over and over that to reach my goal I had to be able to postpone gratification. I had to make sacrifices in my 20’s and 30’s to enjoy a more comfortable life in my 40’s and beyond. It is not easy, but it is worth it. Conditioning yourself to be able to delay gratification is a vital step. It makes saving money easier.

    1. Thanks for the comment and reading Dave. I think the, “it’s worth it” part is the most important. If you arm yourself with the knowledge that allows you to rationally explain why it’s worth it, or the competing choice just isn’t worth it, then you are much bettered equipped to make good decisions.

  3. Nice, I never read about that study with marshmallows. I think I’ve been pretty good with delayed gratification and I usually would just think about how good whatever it was that I was delaying was going to be in the future. Somehow that would trick me into thinking it would be even better in the future, if that makes sense. Sounds simple but it would work for me.

  4. Great post! I find things like the marshmallow experiment fascinating. Isn’t it something that there is a genetic component to the ability to delay gratification?? Lately, I have seen many education-related studies on the benefit of a child having “grit.” According to the studies, kids with grit are even better situated for success than kids with naturally high IQs. So, I suppose if you have the ability to delay gratification and to stick with something to see it through, then you can accomplish just about anything. Sounds like you Zeros figured that out!

    1. Thanks CfK. Like any human behavior, I am sure there is a genetic component, but what I found in my limited research was that there isn’t a strong hereditary correlation. I’ll have to checkout the research on “grit.” I am strong believer in the power of self efficacy. Maybe that is the same thing?

      Here’s any interesting question I came across – Is the ability to delay gratification evolutionary advantageous? What happened to all those squirrels that failed to collect nuts for winter?

  5. Woh, crazy timing. I was just reading/writing about this topic the same week. Must be something about the new year spurring some reflection!

    PMI and delayed gratification is a good connection. That’s a tangible cost every month that is bypassed by waiting.

    1. Thanks for the comment Adam. You know what they say about a room full of monkeys and keyboards? 😉 But seriously, I think getting your head wrapped around this topic is absolutely critical for anyone pursuing FI – no matter your income.

  6. Don’t beat yourselves up too much. Its just a thought process that the many figure out along the way. Just be thankful you figured it out earlier than most (and many who never).

  7. It’s hard to fight your instincts to want a nicer house, with a lake and a boat, etc. Especially as your income grows and you can more easily afford the lifestyle upgrades. That lifestyle inflation is a silent killer for FIRE!

    1. Thanks for comment Jim. I have been very fortunate to grow my income, but I am most thankful that I learned the error of my ways before I truly built myself a prison of never ending work and stress trying keep up with the Joneses.

  8. Holy crap, Mr Zero. It sounds like we’ve led parallel lives. I too was a financial moron who had a difficult time handling delayed gratification. And I too stumbled upon Dave Ramsey, Tom Stanley, and the FIRE community and used their teachings to salvage my financial life. I was aware of the marshmallow study but not the science behind the ability to paint competing choices with the appropriate hot and cold qualities. Very fascinating. I now have another great tool to wage war against that always lurking enemy, immediate gratification. Great post, my friend.
    Mr. Groovy recently posted…Building Groovy Ranch: Update 1My Profile

    1. Thank for the comment Mr. Groovy. I am sure there are many of us out there. I have to give props to my mother-in-law for buying us The Millionaire Next Door. When she gifted us the book, she was adamant that it verified many of her personal observations as an accountant. “You know Mr. Zero, many of those people that you think are wealthy, are actually more broke than you.”

  9. Nice post! Delayed gratification is something of a badge of pride in my family, so I’ve been aware of the concept for a long time.

    I have always been good at holding off, but recently I’ve been thinking more about the longer term psychological aspects of always delaying. I’ve noticed in my family that we all tend to be slightly unhappy at all times. We’re always trying to think a few steps ahead and we find ourselves continually unsatisfied.

    I guess it’s a good thing for growth, but maybe less so for contentment. Anybody have a similar experience?

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