Should Savings Really Be Delayed Gratification?


I have followed Jonathan Clements since his days at the Wall Street Journal.  He is one of the good guys in financial media and a great follow on Twitter.  It would be a rare event for me to read something of Clements and have much of an issue with it.  He is a witty purveyor of financial wisdom. He knows the narratives of Wall Street and a consumptive culture, and he isn't buying it. I like his stuff, a lot. 

Recently, however, he tweeted something I have often said myself in less efficient ways, but upon deeper reflection, I am wondering if both Clements and myself have got this wrong.  

Here's the tweet:

To the extent he means we need to prioritize savings over debt, well, of course, I hope we all agree.  Most (not all) debt is problematic.  As the ancient wisdom proclaims, there are two types of people in the world, one who earns interest and one who pays it.  The former will find financial security, the other will not.  So if that is all that is meant by this tweet, then count me an ardent believer.  

However, as I ate breakfast this morning, I began thinking about how framing savings as delayed gratification is problematic and systematic of our endemic consumerism.  We want to be gratified, so delaying it, means  living our less ideal life.  Because compounding savings and investments take time, then delaying our ideal life for such a long period of time is, well, less than ideal.  

So let me tell you my testimony of savings.  When I save, I don't feel like I am delaying gratification, in fact, it is quite the opposite.  I feel grateful. I am realizing gratification not putting it off into some uncertain future.  The very act of saving is testament to the fact that I am living in abundance.  The fact that I can save means that I have my financial needs met and there is an abundance of money left over to put aside for a time when such abundance may not exist. Being able to save is present gratification, and we need to start framing the act of saving in a positive rather than in a negative.  

Of course, I am cognizant living in abundance is a privilege, and there are people in our society where the scarcity of resources is very real.  Their needs should be our societal concern, but I will argue, because I know for a fact, much of the lack of savings in our country is a result of manufactured scarcity. We feel our homes are too small, our cars too old, our fashions outdated while our phones need to be upgraded.

So we spend, we borrow, and live our lives chasing something more.  We believe by consuming we will be gratified, but our growing credit card balance tells us that gratification through consumption is elusive.  Dare I say, scarce.

Perhaps, we just need to reframe how we think about saving. Perhaps, we talk about saving being gratification realized. What would have happen if we started to believe:

  • To save is to be grateful there is money to save?

  • To save is to celebrate the resistance of the myth of consumptive satisfaction?

  • To save is acknowledgement of life being lived in abundance?

Maybe, just maybe, saving becomes something we want now rather than a sacrifice for something later. Maybe