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Waiting for that second marshmallow in your financial life

You made it through Christmas and if you’re among the lucky ones, you did it without giving into the temptation to overspend. If that’s you, congratulations!

What you might not have expected, though, is that delaying gratification was easier when you were geared up for it. Once you let your guard down, suddenly that flat-screen television, jewelry or the costly vacation looks tempting.

Even if it is not that way for you now, chances are somewhere along your journey toward debt freedom you’re going to miss the way you did things before. That way was buying things because you had the credit to do it, as if that were the only justification you needed.

You have now entered the world of delayed gratification, and you might need some strategies to help you navigate your way through.

The most famous experiment illustrating delayed gratification was done by Stanford University’s Walter Mischel in the 1960s. He put a marshmallow in front of children and told each one if they waited long enough, he would bring them another. He tracked the lives of the kids and found those who waited on that first marshmallow test had higher SAT scores and fewer substance abuse problems later on.

While we cannot jump to too many conclusions based on that test, it paints a decent picture of what you are going through now. Even better are later studies that paid more attention to what children did to keep themselves from eating that first marshmallow.

The most effective thing the children did was distracting themselves with something else.

So, here are a few ideas you might consider as you negotiate your way to debt freedom.

  • Add up your debt balances on the same day each month and calculate the difference month to month. If you want to go a step further, calculate forward a few months to see how much your debt will decrease.
  • If you see something you want to buy, don’t tell yourself you never will be able to have it. Instead, set it as a goal and save up for it. Even better, set is a reward. Save up for it, but then don’t buy it until you hit a debt milestone you choose.
  • Another way to avoid going into debt is to take advantage of layaway. Many retailers only allow it during the Christmas shopping season, but some offer it all year. There are also online sites that will help you do the same thing.
  • Think of something else that satisfies you as much as the coveted item would and create that. If you want a TV, but an occasional night out with friends would be just as satisfying, arrange that instead.

Don’t feel bad that your quest for a debt-free life feels difficult sometimes. You are changing your life. That can feel hard. But instead of giving in, find ways to meet your challenge head on. An American Financial Solutions credit counselor can help you come up with ideas to keep you on track so that you feel the same joy as those kids who got the second marshmallow.

Published Feb 5, 2014.