The Psychology of Money, Part III: Pay Now But Consume Later and Invest in Others

This post concludes our three part series focused on the psychology of money. Up to this point, we’ve talked about: 

  1. How buying experiences, instead of material goods, is a better use of our money because those experiences tend to stick with us longer. 

  2. The importance of making your spending a treat -- because the more we have and the more “normal” the things we buy for ourselves become, the less we notice, appreciate, or enjoy them.  

  3. And finally, we learned that when it comes to being happier, time is a more valuable resource than money itself. 

If you want to dive into these topics in further detail, be sure to catch up on the first post here, and then read the second post in the series here

How to Use Your Money to Actually Buy Happiness

Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, authors of Happy Money, suggest that money can buy us happiness.

The problem is, we’re not very good at understanding what actually makes us happy! Therefore, we go and spend our money on all the wrong things and then wonder why more money doesn’t make us more happy.

This final post in this series continues to look at the ways Dunn and Norton suggest we change how we use our money so that we can get more happiness from every dollar we spend. Let’s now look at two more principles the book provides us.

The first is the idea that we should “pay now, consume later,” and the second is that to get the most from our money, we might want to spend it on others instead of ourselves.

The Dangers of Credit and Avoiding the “Pain of Paying”

Dunn and Norton explain that “the feeling of parting with hard earned cash can be so aversive that behavioral economists have given it an ache-inducing name: the pain of paying.” In other words, we can actually feel physical pain when parting with cold hard cash. 

This might explain why credit cards and options like financing purchases are so popular. In the past, if you didn’t have money for something, you didn’t buy it. End of story.  

Today, we can simply charge our purchases to a little piece of plastic -- regardless of whether or not we actually have the money available to pay for what we just charged.

Not only are we not physically pulling money out of our pocket and handing it over (swiping a card does not induce the same kind of pain as parting with actual cash), but we get what we want immediately… and we don’t have to pay for it until later.

That allows us to temporarily avoid that “pain of paying” at the point of purchase. We get our stuff and we figure out how to deal with the financial repercussions later. Specifically, 30 days later when the credit card bill comes due. 

Why You Should Pay Now But Consume Later

It turns out that this strategy isn’t just a bad one for your financial health (especially if you don’t have the cash available to pay those credit card bills). Consuming now but paying later is counterproductive for happiness, too. 

Delaying consumption can actually increase our happiness. Dunn and Norton suggest that we flip the usual script and pay now but wait to actually enjoy what we purchased if we want to get more enjoyment from our spending. 

For example, you could book an all-inclusive vacation that you will take in 6 months -- but don’t just let the charge sit on a credit card. Pay for that trip in full now so you can enjoy it more later in the year.

Again, this benefits you from a very tangible financial perspective, too. I see many people struggle with a simple concept that is critical to building wealth: spending less than you earn.

Credit cards can exacerbate this problem.

I recently worked with a client who had about $27,000 in credit card debt. The good news was that they weren’t accruing interest on the balance because it was on a card with a 0% APR for the first 18 months. In theory, this client could simply pay off $1,500 each month and be debt free.

But our behaviors aren’t that simple, especially when it comes to money. 

Paying Now Can Help Break the Overspending, Debt- Accumulation Cycle 

This person had been in this overspending, consume-now, maybe-pay-later cycle for years. They would pay down their debt, but they never addressed their spending habits that created it in the first place… so it would all just pile back up over time.

This constant overspending and subsequent clean-up process made it impossible for this client to save for retirement. They also had nothing saved for their son’s college tuition.

The client could manage to climb out of debt, but all that money spent on credit card balances meant nothing available to actually save and invest for something more meaningful.

They needed to break the cycle. We took away the credit cards and determined a set amount of cash that could be available for discretionary spending. If the cash wasn’t there, the client was not allowed to spend money.

Changing your behaviors, like cutting up your credit cards and switching to cash instead, will help change your habits -- and over time, changing your habits is what will allow you to go from feeling stuck and unhappy to thriving and content with your finances and your life. 

Instead of Spending on You, Invest in Others

Refocusing where we spend can help make us happier, too. Or perhaps to put it more accurately, who we spend on matters. We tend to like to buy stuff for ourselves… but if happiness is our goal, investing in others might make a bigger impact in more ways than one.  

Dunn and Norton provide 3 strategies in Happy Money to execute on this idea: 

  1. Make it a choice

  2. Make a connection

  3. Make an impact                                                                                                                                        

For me, investing in others means donating my time.

It’s providing pro-bono financial planning to those who really need it but would otherwise not have access to the advice. It’s having a lunch and learn with organizations like ProAction to answer questions about retirements and investing. 

This is a choice I make -- and it makes me feel good to give back to local communities and connect with people. And I not only get to make an impact by helping others, but I get to see that impact as people change their behaviors and actions around money thanks to the conversations we have.

Will you make any changes to change the way you spend to increase your happiness? I’d love to hear how you changed a habit or tried something new with your money after reading these posts. Feel free to email me at paul@lakeroadadvisors.com and share your story.

Feel like you need more guidance or support? Click here to book a one-on-one consultation so we can take a closer look at your finances -- and your opportunities to use your money differently for more happiness.