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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