Savings, Sacrifice and the Psychology of Delayed Gratification

Spending Diet update! You can track how my own savings are progressing here (I’m over 75% of the way there with 4 months to go!).

Of all the reactions I’ve encountered when telling people about my travel plans (and I’ve told close to a billion people at this
point), the most infuriating actually came from my dentist:

Creative Commons License photo credit: Conor Lawless

“It must be nice to have rich parents.”

As I sat there, literally speechless with my mouth clamped open, all I could think was “Yes, that MUST be nice.” I however, wouldn’t know. My parents have been supportive in so many ways: from acting as personal cheerleaders to letting me live at home rent-free. However, even if they HAD money to spare (which they don’t), they wouldn’t be handing it over to me to go vagabonding.

So, while I count myself lucky in so, so many ways, possessing extreme wealth, or even comfortable wealth, isn’t one of them. Instead I have the values of hard work, self-sufficiency and working towards my goals. I think that’s probably true for most of us young backpackers,

So how do we get ourselves out into the world? Through the far less glamorous method of sacrifice and delayed gratification.


Sacrifices are the things you give up that you can’t get back.

Passing up on box seats to the final Capitals playoff game, for example. Sure, I saved some money, but I will never, ever have the opportunity to attend that hockey game again. While in turbo travel savings mode I’ve been forced to give up all sorts of things, from vacations, to new jeans, to having my own apartment.

Often it can be very difficult to make sacrifices, even when you know it’s for the best. For most travelers experiencing the great things in life are the whole point, so passing up on great opportunities now is very dispiriting. This is why I try to look at most of the savings methods I use not as sacrifices, but as exercises in delayed gratification…

Delayed Gratification

Vacation fund jar
Creative Commons License photo credit: danesparza

Put simply, delayed gratification is the concept of giving up something now to obtain something better later. It’s not always easy to do, but it’s an important skill to learn, one that benefits us in many areas of life (and studies have shown is closely linked with intelligence).

Keeping the idea of delayed gratification in mind can help you stay disciplined in the quest to save money. Looking at your newly changed spending and living habits not as sacrifices to the travel gods, but as steps on the road towards something bigger and greater can make it much easier to forego that morning Starbucks.

Here are some tips for strengthening your skills as delaying gratification:

  • Make your goals concrete- it is a lot harder to internally justify saving to go “somewhere, someday” then it is to save for a tangible trip or destination.  Remind yourself constantly of your goal- pictures help.
  • Make equivalencies- I would have loved to go to that Caps game with my coworkers last week. But at a $180 a ticket? That’s an entire week’s budget in Thailand. It may be 9 months away, but ultimately, Thailand is more important to me and remembering that made it a lot easier to say no (and, as it turns out, we lost the game tragically anyways).
  • Give yourself small rewards- nobody is perfect at this and if you make yourself miserable by living a Spartan life you will almost certainly break under the pressure. If it’s really important to you to do something- do it. If you are climbing up the wall with restlessness and wanderlust, take a small trip. It might take a bite out of your savings, but if it makes life bearable then it’s worth it. And in the end it will probably make you more focused on your end goal.

There’s nothing earth shattering here, what we are talking about is a simple paradigm shift. Saving up for travel is not a punishment, and it doesn’t mean you have to live like a self-sacrificing monk. It’s important to remember that when we put our spending habits on hold, it’s because we know that there is an even bigger reward at the end.

In addition, learning to save and learning self-control are skills that will last you throughout life. And that’s way better than being born rich…. Right?

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33 thoughts on “Savings, Sacrifice and the Psychology of Delayed Gratification”

  1. I absolutely love to travel, and there’s always a bizarre premise that because you’re visiting so many different places, you must be wealthy in some way. Making sacrifices and awaiting that later gratification like you gracefully point out in this article is what it’s all about. Not to say that given the chance I wouldn’t set up an air charter in a heartbeat, but there two completely different experiences.

    One of the biggest sacrifices I’ve made towards travel is spending a lot less time with my friends and family. Even when I am at home, I don’t have nearly enough money to spend quality time with them, especially if they’re wanting to hit the town. Although this can feel pretty bad, over time that delayed gratification kicks in and you know why it was all worth it.

    There has been times were I’ve slipped up, decided to attend some financially intensive local concert and lost out on a great travel opportunity, which is why I’m taking a keen note of your tips on strengthening the will power to await a later gratification. Goals is something I must definitely work on, I haven’t been known to be the most organized person in the world.

  2. Wow, rude dentist! I have had a pretty generous, but hardly “rich” family which has made saving for travel easier (and given me travel experiences at a young age because my family made it a priority in their budget), but it still bugs me when people would say “Oh, well I can’t afford to do what you did. You’re lucky.”

    Yes, I am lucky – but I also shared the rent of a bathroom-sized flat with another person for a year, lived almost solely off soup, and made other sacrifices that some people just aren’t willing to make. And that’s fine – they have different priorities. But that’s ultimately what it’s about. Yes, for many people it’s a luxury, but for the vast majority of people claiming they can’t afford it, it’s just a matter of, as you said, shifting their paradigm slightly.

    Though, even if you had rich parents, I don’t know where people get off thinking it’s okay to be rude to rich people.

    Thanks for the insights!

  3. My kids don’t have a rich parent either, but we have all managed to travel quite a bit – enough to instill the bug in them as youngsters. Now as upper teens and early 20’s they are very self-reliant, self-motivated, and can make good decisions on spending. Your post is so spot on, I passed it on to them. I think you are indeed very rich, my dear… in wisdom. Good luck and I will continue to follow your progress! Cheers – Beverly
    .-= Beverly/@TravelMaestro´s last blog ..Ni Sa Bula, Welcome to Fiji! =-.

    1. Thank you so much Beverly! It sounds like you raised your children to be smart, self-reliant individuals. I’m glad my parents did the same!

  4. It really annoys me that people always assume if you travel you must be rich. I’ve had people say “Oh, well… if you can afford that sort of thing” as I stand in their nicely decorated apartment they’ve just finished payments on and drink coffee from their fancy espresso machine. A lot of people really don’t recognise the sacrifice involved if you want to travel a lot.

    Have you ever seen the Marshmallow Test speaking of delayed gratification. It’s pretty funny and very cute:
    .-= Verity´s last blog ..Escape from Istanbul – Part I =-.

  5. Kudos to you for being so diligent and saving so much up for your trip! My best savings tip is to have an interest-earning savings account for travel only, and to set up an automatic savings plan. I have my checking account with one bank, but have my travel savings account at a separate, online-only bank. Each week, a set amount automatically goes from my checking account to my savings at the other bank (I change the amount from time to time depending on how soon I’m traveling). This is great because even when I forget to set money aside, I’m saving for travel. The benefit of it being at a separate bank is that it usually takes 2-3 days for the money to transfer, so I can’t use it impulsively. By spreading it out weekly, you hardly notice it and usually don’t have to worry about overdrafting. Then, whenever I have some extra money, I toss it in that account, and it all adds up, especially since it has interest. It’s my favorite method of saving now!
    .-= Emily´s last blog ..Q&A With Irish Backpacker and Blogger Johnny Ward =-.

  6. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one feeling the travel fund pinch. I’m halfway to my RTW goal and the wait is driving me up the wall!

    Thanks for the blog entry!

    1. Reaching the halfway point is the hardest point! I feel like the money I already have in the bank is encouragement to keep going.

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