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Take the Marshmallow Test
By Keith Rawlinson
Volunteer Budget Counselor

Which would you choose?


(A)  Receive one marshmallow right now.

(B)  Wait, and receive three marshmallows twenty minutes from now.


In a formal study, this question was posed to a group of four-year-olds.  Some chose to have the one marshmallow immediately, and some chose to wait twenty minutes to receive three marshmallows.  Then, the two groups of four-year-olds were tracked for the next twenty years of their lives.  During those twenty years, with little or no deviation, the group of four-year-olds that chose to wait for twenty minutes, excelled significantly beyond the other group in most aspects of their lives.

What can we adults learn from this?

This study, as I am sure you have already surmised, was about comparing people who choose immediate gratification to people who are willing to delay gratification in order to have more later.  In other words:  patience versus impatience; or, maturity versus immaturity.

Yes, the willingness to delay gratification in order to be better off later is a sign of maturity.  The willingness to delay gratification is also a very good indicator of future success in life--especially when it comes to finances.  I can honestly say that, in my years of financial counseling, I have never seen an adult who insists on immediate, short-term gratification, become debt free or wealthy and then manage to stay that way.  In fact, when I am called to counsel new clients, I can often accurately predict their chances of financial success by looking at their willingness to delay gratification.  Now, what I do see occasionally, are adults who start out immature and wanting immediate gratification, but through learning, determination, and sometimes fear, become more mature and develop the ability to delay gratification in order to be far better off somewhere down the road.

You may say you would choose to wait twenty minutes for three marshmallows instead of getting one now, but would you really?  In fact, is that what you are doing in your life right now as an adult?  Believe it or not, we adults are taking the marshmallow test on pretty much a daily basis.  Here are some examples:

-Should I wait until I have saved up the cash for something I want, or should I just go ahead and put it on the credit card and worry about paying for it later?

-Should I spend time and money getting an education in order to increase my earning potential, or should I just take the job offer and start making money now?

-Should I spend a few years saving up a nice down payment for a house, or should I just borrow as much as the bank will let me so I can have the house now?

-Should I deny myself some of the things I want now in order to have extra money to save and invest for the future, or should I spend my money to buy the things I want right now?

-Should I save up money for the purchase of my next car, or just borrow the money to buy the car now?

-Should I drive an old car now in order to save up the money for a nice one later, or just lease or finance a nice car now?

-Should I put fun, enjoyment and convenience on hold while I work on becoming debt free so that I can live debt free for the rest of my life, or should I just deal with debt as I go along the way most people do?

As you can see from just these few examples, we adults are constantly taking the marshmallow test.  The future success of the four-year-olds in the study was indicated by their willingness, or unwillingness, to delay gratification in order to get ahead.  The lesson here is that if we adults want to get ahead financially, we must be willing to put off  gratification in order to be better off later.  The steps to getting ahead are (in order): creating a written plan, living on less than you earn, establishing savings for emergencies, getting out of debt, investing for the future.  All of these things require time and delayed gratification.  Borrowing money to buy things you don't absolutely need for survival, or to buy things that are bigger, better, or nicer than you really need, is one very common example of insisting upon immediate gratification in your life.  The reason you borrow money, including using the credit card, is so that you don't have to wait for whatever it is you are buying.  In order to get out of debt and hopefully one day become wealthy, you have to start thinking like a wealthy person and look at the longterm instead of at the immediate.  You have to be willing to deny yourself things for now in order to get to the point that you have the cash for things you want so you will never have to live that way again.  You have to learn to use that magical word "no."

No, I will not keep using my credit card to buy things I don't really need.
No, I will not insist on spending my money on fun or on 'stuff' while I'm working on getting out of debt.
No, I will not be too lazy to develop a written budget and then follow it.
No, I will not buy a nicer car than I can afford--I will buy a nice car later when I can afford it.
No, I will not buy a nice, big, impressive house until I can actually afford one--I can always buy a nicer house later.
No, I will not let my friends, family, children or spouse talk me into buying unnecessary things--I'll wait until I am out of debt to start making frivolous or fun purchases.

You are taking the marshmallow test right this very moment!


You have read this article and now have to decide:  Do you want one marshmallow right now, or are you willing to wait until you can have a whole bunch more marshmallows later?

If you insist on having your one marshmallow now, then just:

If you are willing to wait, in order to have more marshmallows later, then:

From now on, each and every time you are faced with any kind of marshmallow test, remember what you have learned here on Eclecticsite.com's Financial Page and make the wise, mature choice.


Please know that all of the thoughts, information, suggestions and techniques given on this site are nothing more than the author's opinion on the matter being addressed.  Do further research before making any decisions.

This article copyright 2008 by Keith C. Rawlinson (Eclecticsite.com).  All rights reserved.

This article may be copied for non-profit use including newsletters, bulletins, etc. as long as you
first get written permission from the author and  full credit is given which includes the author's name
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