Save or Spend?

There are three types of people in the material world: savers; spenders; and somewhere, someone, who perfectly balances the two. Too bad young lovers rarely get around to asking, “Saver or spender?” because mismatched partners no doubt deal with more than normal stress and conflict.

A consummate saver, I’m a distinct minority. News outlets have been churning out report after report about Baby Boomers not having saved nearly enough for their impending retirements. Look for older and older employees in the workforce.

Recently, a Wall Street Journal writer (article link—Want to Retire Wealthier?) asked, “Why is it so difficult for people to set aside money for the long-term future?”

Then answered, “Low earnings and high temptations are obvious reasons. But perhaps the most basic cause is a fundamental human frailty: We view our future selves as strangers.”

The intriguing article continued:

Estimating with any precision what you will want 30 or 40 years from now is almost impossible. You don’t know your future desires, because you don’t know your future self. What will you want or need when you are 65 or 70 or 80 or older? Who knows?

Viewed this way, it isn’t surprising that the young typically don’t want to save for their retirement, since that stage of life feels as if it will be lived by someone else. And when you save money today on behalf of your remote future self, you deprive your immediate present self of cash you could use right now.

Of course, if you spend tomorrow’s savings today, you won’t have cash when you need it in the future—but that day of reckoning is decades off. That is true for those of all ages, but the lost opportunity is greatest for young people, because money set aside at an early age has more years to grow.

Yet it is highly unusual for people to think more vividly about their future selves than about their present selves, say psychologists.

The project underway at Stanford seeks to close this gap between the present self and the future self, without turning young people into misers. By enabling the young to see themselves as they will be when they are old, virtual-reality technology can transform their urge to spend for today into a willingness to save for tomorrow.

Interesting finding. Pictures of people’s future elder selves inspire them to save more.

Reminds me of the “marshmellow study” described here.

In that study, researchers learned that young children who couldn’t wait to eat one marshmellow (“low delayers”) and thereby sacrificed receiving a second one, seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower S.A.T. scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. The child who could wait fifteen minutes for a second marshmellow had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.

You and I know S.A.T scores are inconsequential in the bigger picture, but it’s hard to underestimate the importance of delaying gratification.

I wonder, what’s the secret to striking the best possible saving-spending balance? Put differently, how should one balance living in the present on one hand and in the probable future on the other? And if virtual-reality technology holds promise for helping spenders save more, what might help hyper-savers strike a better balance?

2 thoughts on “Save or Spend?

  1. An engaging topic Ron. I look around though and my own life was filled with people whose notion of deferred gratification was either nonexistent or hampered by the current realities of costs for education, health, and basic needs of food clothing and shelter. Certain levels of income literally live from paycheck to paycheck and find no wiggle room to put small amounts away from each paycheck.

    Single people are more capable of doing this so if we can engrain in young people to start saving a small portion of their paycheck well before they get married, where they incur the expenses of a home and family, it may be a well established pattern that stays with them.

    • Agreed. And sadly, collectively we’re living paycheck to paycheck as evidenced by state and national budget cuts. By weakening our already weakened safety net and reducing our investment in health and human services like education, we’re creating a whole host of medium and long-term problems.

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