The power of patience

When I was young, I had no patience. I wanted everything, and I wanted it now. No wonder, then, that I found myself with over $20,000 in credit-card debt just a few years out of college. I was spending to obtain a lifestyle that I wouldn't be able to afford until I was older. Much older.

I'm not the only one with this problem. Many young adults graduate from college or leave home, and suddenly find themselves in reduced circumstances. They're used to the standard of living they enjoyed at home with their parents. Rather than wait until they can afford similar luxuries, they buy them on credit. They forget that their parents had to work twenty or thirty years to be able to afford the things they have.

This impatience is costly. It leads to debt, and it starts a cycle of excessive consumption and lifestyle inflation.

The Power of Patience

I'm entering middle age now, and so are most of my friends. As we get older, an interesting thing has happened. Suddenly, we're able to afford the things we used to want so badly. Sometimes we buy them; sometimes we don't.

It's fun to watch the choices people make. I see folks who were willing to live in cheap apartments for a decade or more now buying houses. But they're paying cash for the entire thing instead of carrying a mortgage. Their patience has paid off.

I'm seeing people who have toiled for years at tough jobs finally getting big breaks. Others quietly saved and invested while everyone around them was spending (or abandoning the stock market); they're now poised to retire early — if they want to.

Not all who wait reap the rewards, of course, but many do. Patience doesn't guarantee success, but it dramatically increases the odds. Here are just a few of the ways patience can help you achieve your financial goals:

  • Patience lets your money grow. The longer you hold onto your money, the more you have of it. But more than that, time is the magic ingredient in the power of compounding, which lets your pool of money expand every year.
  • Patience teaches you discipline. When I first learned to use the 30-day rule, it revolutionized my shopping habits. Instead of buying what I wanted now, I waited 30 days. Most of the time, I realized I could live without whatever seemed so urgent. But even when I did end up buying what was on the list, I felt better about my decision. Why? Because I'd exercised discipline. Patience helps prevent mistakes.
  • Patience allows you to seize opportunities. If you're willing to wait instead of buying today, you're able to spend time comparison shopping or looking for free and cheap alternatives. If you're in no rush, you can even practice predatory shopping — waiting for bargains and extreme markdowns that let you save big bucks.
  • Patience lets you discover what's important. As you age, your values change. If you're willing to wait, you learn what truly matters to you. Patience helps you practice conscious spending.
  • Patience keeps you sane. Patience means opting out of the relentless drive for the new. It means not caring about fashion. It means not giving in to fads and trends. It means buying last year's model — and keeping it until it dies. Because you don't have to worry about keeping up with the Joneses, you quietly live a contented life.

Patience leads to wealth and happiness. (It leads to each independently, not as a package.) But it can be tough to practice patience if you're plugged into television, radio, and the internet. Our society doesn't believe in patience. Our society is all about Now.

The Culture of Now

We live in a Culture of Now. We're constantly bombarded by messages trying to convince us to buy now, to spend now, to have what we want this very moment. Nobody preaches patience. Nobody explains that the cost of Now is a loss of your future. (That is, it's generally more expensive — in time and money — to buy something now than it is to wait until you can afford it. For more on this, see our recent discussion of the time-value of money and last fall's article about Present Me and Future Me.)

But if you can learn to be patient, the world opens up to you.

I'm not talking about waiting until you're 80 to enjoy life — I want to enjoy life today — I'm talking about taking things as they come in their proper time. Relish the moment you're in, and accept it for what it is. If you're 25 and burdened with student loans, accept that. Set a goal, make a plan to meet that goal, and then work hard to achieve it. Be patient along the way. You will get out of debt, you will buy a house, you will save enough for retirement. But you're not going to do all of that today. It'll take time, which is something you have plenty of.

Be patient, and that patience will be rewarded.

Update! While browsing other blogs this morning, I saw that my friend Brett over at The Art of Manliness (a great blog, by the way) posted a similar story yesterday: The Power and Pleasure of Delayed Gratification. Great minds think alike!

More about...Psychology, Planning

Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others

Subscribe to the GRS Insider (FREE) and we’ll give you a copy of the Money Boss Manifesto (also FREE)

Yes! Sign up and get your free gift
Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others
guest
57 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
LifeAndMyFinances
LifeAndMyFinances
9 years ago

When I graduated from college just a few years ago, many of my fellow classmates were rewarding themselves with brand new cars. Now they had student loans AND a car note to worry about before they even had a full-time job lined up!

Many of them are still paying for this today. Luckily, I decided that I deserved nothing until I could afford it with cash. Today, I am debt free and starting to look at houses (with a hefty down-payment).

Pamela
Pamela
9 years ago

You alluded to this in your post but I’d add that nonconformity paired with patience is a real power combination. Someone who works their way through college while their friends stack up student loans or who rides a bike instead of driving has so much more freedom.

Unfortunately, so many people have trouble saying “no” to many of our culture’s messages–and not just the one that says we need to have it now.

If you’re willing to be patient and weird–wow, you’ll be amazing!

leslie
leslie
9 years ago

I have been reading GRS for years now and I have to say that this is probably my favorite post that you have ever written. It really resonates with me. You and I are the same age and I have noticed so many of the same things lately – people that have been patient and some of the choices that they are able to make. And, even more powerful to me in some ways, people that have not been patient at all and the limits they have to work under now. This is a lesson that my father really stressed… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago

This New Yorker article on delayed gratification is fascinating: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/05/18/090518fa_fact_lehrer .

emily
emily
9 years ago

Living in an apartment for years and then paying cash for a house!!!! They are my heroes!! I”d be curious to learn more how they did this if they decided to have children. I’m a recent dental grad. It is unbelievable how many of my classmates are buying houses, brand new acuras, with 250K+ in student loans. I don’t care if you make 100k your first year out. Take a breath. Although some do come from wealthy dental and doctor families and have zero school debt. About 30 % of my class had that scenario, so I recognize I shouldn’t… Read more »

Eugene
Eugene
9 years ago

@Nicole:

The latest edition of The Economist also mentioned the marshmallow experiment: http://www.economist.com/node/18276096

Does this mean we’re hard-wired to be patient or impulsive? How much can we really control?

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
9 years ago

Great post, JD! 🙂 I’ve found peer pressure is just as difficult to keep up with as pressure from the media/society/etc. It’s hard to keep saving and slogging away at your job when you see your friends buying houses, getting promotions, etc.

We’re all at different stages in our journeys, financially and personally, so it’s hard not to skip ahead! Thanks for the reminder.

getagrip
getagrip
9 years ago

Good article. Every time I’ve bought based on a fast “need”, I’ve regretted it. Every time I’ve planned a little, considered my options, an opportunity has openned for me and I get what I needed for less, or I get a better deal, or I find a different way to address the need I hadn’t thought about. To me Patience brings on options in addition to the items mentioned in the article.

Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago

@5 Eugene — The New Yorker article argues that patience can be taught. Also, you cannot say from these experience that it’s hardwiring because they don’t do the experiments on newborns, but on small children who have been exposed to culture for years. They can’t separate genetics from upbringing in these experiments. My kid will patiently wait to eat a piece of chocolate (until after dinner, say), but he also knows that nobody here is going to take that chocolate away from him. If his experiences were different (say he had a greedy sibling) then he might not be so… Read more »

brokeprofessionals
brokeprofessionals
9 years ago

I am 27 right now, and my wife and I have a 15 year fixed rate mortgage with $250k (we just got our house) and $160k left in student loans (10 year plan, a couple of years in). We both went to graduate school, I am a lawyer and my wife is in education. We earn decent salaries and are very frugal, but sometimes I worry I will never ever get out of it. This is a nice reminder that if we can keep our jobs and our health, when we are middle aged we might be in a good… Read more »

Jeff
Jeff
9 years ago

Great post. As someone who is in their late 20’s its easy to forget about patience. My wife and I started with almost $200,000 in debt including student loans and a second mortgage. We are half-way to debt free after a year and half. It’s easy to get down about the remaining debt (especially when the majority is my wife’s private school loans). Having perspective and giving yourself credit for current success and discipline is key. Hopefully we will learn from past debt mistakes and use that discipline to build wealth for the future, rather than paying for the past,… Read more »

retirebyforty
retirebyforty
9 years ago

I think a lot of young people these days do not know how hard their parent work for their lifestyle. I knew my parent work really hard to send me to college and I never spend much money there. Once I started making my own money though, lifestyle inflation really hit. I’m a pretty patient person by nature so instant gratification didn’t stay with me long and I was able to get back to my frugal way.

Coley
Coley
9 years ago

brokeprofessionals – The relatively short amortization periods for your mortgage and student loans, combined with your ages, puts you in a better position than many of your contemporaries. I know professionals who are as broke as you are, but they’re just starting 30-year mortgages (on their latest dream house) that they can barely afford, and they’re in their mid-forties. Not only are they that much closer to retirement, and amortized into their mid-seventies, but they’re much closer to the realistic peak of their earning potential. In your situation, provided that your house is a good fit for your family for… Read more »

everyday tips
everyday tips
9 years ago

I am incredibly patient when it comes to waiting for something to go on sale. But there are other aspects of my life that I am incredibly impatient about. (Waiting for a doctor to call back, walking behind super slow people in the mall that I can’t get around, etc.)

I don’t know if that part of me can ever change. I have tried though.

K.C.
K.C.
9 years ago

Thanks for this post and your observations. They are right on! One advantage of growing old is that my perception of time has changed. Time becomes compressed. An hour is nothing. A day is little more than nothing. Six months has come and gone before I know it. It makes it a lot easier to be patient. Time is the main advantage of youth, especially,as you point out,when it comes to growing wealth. That’s why I avoided risky investments when I was young. I could replace any money lost, but I could not replace the time lost if an investment… Read more »

Nancy L.
Nancy L.
9 years ago

Regarding patience, some might say that I’ve developed patience in my forties. I wouldn’t necessarily give myself that much credit–I’ve just learned how to plan better for my impetuousness. Instead of trying to deny it completely and then failing miserably when I give in to it, I now accept that I need a certain amount of whim/indulgence in my life. So I approached my budget keeping that in mind. I may not reach the big picture goals as quickly as others, but if I am happy & continuing to make some progress, that’s good enough for me. And having the… Read more »

broke professionals
broke professionals
9 years ago

Coley, Thanks for the kind words, lol. Not too often that I hear our finances aren’t in too bad of a position, lol. The only good thing is that lawyers salaries tend (although who the heck knows anymore) to increase at a high percentgage rate each year. We are just starting out so I am hoping our salaries will increase to keep up with rising costs, future children, etc. Then again something horrible could happen and we could be s.o.l. I guess we all need a little bit of luck. Like Jeff said above, a lot of it is just… Read more »

MutantSuperModel
MutantSuperModel
9 years ago

Ah, patience. Such a struggle for me and I’m not just talking about money. I don’t know if I wasn’t taught properly, or if I wasn’t wired for it, or what but it has been a painful learning process and at times I swear I really do feel like parts in my brain are shifting in response to practicing new patient habits. It is indeed quite a powerful thing, patience, and justly rewarded in many ways, but it is incredibly difficult and not a small wonder it is regarded as a virtue. More than anything else, this is the single… Read more »

Ash
Ash
9 years ago

My only real concern with being patient is sometimes opportunities can be missed because of the desire to wait. Like you mention at the end of the article, you need to enjoy the now, but not to the detriment of your future. It’s just, while a person waits, it’s easy to lapse into a mode where you wait for perfection. I’m not talking about splurging on gadgets, but things like buying houses/investments. Those are the sort of things (to me) that even if you have the patience or the money, there might not be a leap-out-at-you right or perfect time… Read more »

Kim
Kim
9 years ago

I love this post! I think about this issue a lot; I teach college and our students often drive newer and more luxurious cars than does faculty. Of course, their parents are paying for the upscale wheels. I worry about what will happen when they start making car payments themselves and are forced to “downsize” to, say, more affordable transportation like a Ford or (gasp!) Chevy. I think the next generation is in for some hard times and hard lessons. I expect personal debt levels will continue to escalate as will general disatisfaction with life and the incidence of depression.… Read more »

Melissa
Melissa
9 years ago

My husband and I were discussing this last night. Our parents rarely discuss life at our age/stage. They have lots of stories about life in college and lots of stories about after they had kids, but no stories about being a young, struggling married couple. Basically, the ages of 25-30 don’t really exist. In other words, we’re going to beg our parents for “when I was your age” stories.

Laura in Cancun
Laura in Cancun
9 years ago

Perfect timing! Just last night my husband and I were talking about this. We’re dying to buy our own house soon and we can’t seem to get the idea out of our heads… even though we won’t be financially ready to buy one for at least another year or two (maybe more).

Then I remember that I’m only 24 and I need to enjoy the carefree life of a renter while I can 🙂

PigPennies
PigPennies
9 years ago

I would add that it’s not just about enjoying life today while finding a way to also meet your debt or savings goals, but it’s about taking a lot of enjoyment in paying down your debt or reaching a savings goal!

Or is that just me? 😉

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
9 years ago

I think patience is the wrong term to be using here. Patience is waiting for a fish to bite, it’s not spending every summer for 10 years up in the mountains becoming a good fly fisherman. That’s effort. It’s doing a lot. It’s practice. The lesson here isn’t “good things come to those who wait” but “good things come to those who keep moving forward”. And yes, they do take time, but time is insufficient. J.D. didn’t become a successful blogger by virtue of patience. Yes, it took a long time, but more than that, it also took a lot… Read more »

Laura in Cancun
Laura in Cancun
9 years ago

I forgot to mention this… My goal is to eventually retire like my grandparents. They have a nice house, good health, and travel frequently with their kids. About a year ago, my grandparents put together an album of all the homes they’ve lived in over the past 60 years. (They were in the military and moved frequently.) Their first homes were trailers, then after a few years they moved on to tiny homes… and the homes got bigger and bigger over the course of 60 years. I think that’s when I finally “got it” that you don’t acheive everything right… Read more »

Wendy H
Wendy H
9 years ago

When I left high school I considered pursuing schooling to become a doctor but decided that it would take too long (eight years of schooling and two plus years of residency). I wanted something now, so instead I went into the workforce. Ten years later I am back in school to become a doctor. It’ll still take at least 10 years and now I need to balance children and school. If I had been willing to be patient, instead of in a hurry to get onto “real life” I could have been working in the field by now. To be… Read more »

Allison
Allison
9 years ago

JD I’ve been reading your articles for almost a year now and this is by far the most useful article I’ve read. I am a recent college graduate, one of the lucky few who was able to obtain a job in my field right after graduating. I make a decent salary and do not have consumer debt in the form of credit cards, however I have 70K in student loans. I’ve wasted so much energy over feeling guilty and trying to find a way to overcome this burden. The truth of the matter is it will take me years to… Read more »

Jennifer
Jennifer
9 years ago

There is so much pressure to buy things “right now” rather than wait. I try my hardest to avoid situations where I might be tempted – until I actually need to buy something. But nowadays, you don’t have to go to the store to buy something. Deals come to my inbox numerous times every single day. Every store I have ever bought from sends me emails at least once a week. Daily deal sites like Groupon send numerous emails a day. These sites are especially dangerous because their great deals are for such a limited time, you can really get… Read more »

JT McGee
JT McGee
9 years ago

Patience means lending your patience, at interest, to all the people who don’t have it. I’m cool with that. 🙂

Geoff
Geoff
9 years ago

Reminds me of Herman Hesses fantastic work Siddhartha. When the seemingly “rich” people asked “what can you do? what are your skills?” the monk replied “I can fast and I can wait.” He was laughed at, but through waiting the world was opened to him. Such a valuable skill, one worth praciticing.

Troy
Troy
9 years ago

“No matter how hard you save, you can’t buy your youth back” There is always a flip side to the argument. Yes patience is important, but more so is not waiting. JD quotes ” the cost of Now is a loss of your future” above. True. But the cost of the Future is a loss of the present. Having patience, and waiting, and putting things off, and saving for later all put the present on the back burner. And eventually the present becomes the future. Before you know it, you are 40, then 60. Lots of older people wished they… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
9 years ago

Alright, here is my contrarian view on this article. Patience is great when you have a goal, a plan, and intermediate goals to achieve along the way. But this type of patience requires impatience to keep things moving according to plan. Otherwise, patience can turn into conformity and passivity. “I’ll put up with my abusive boss because some day he will retire” “I’ll put up with injustice now, I’ll get for my rewards in the afterlife”, etc. Patience and passivity share the same Latin root, which is, funny enough, “suffering”. Tolerance of suffering can sometimes turn into masochism. Patience can… Read more »

Kathrine
Kathrine
9 years ago

At the age of 22, I am relieved to know that I’m not imagining all the pressure of the NOW. I am up to my ears in debt, however it is manageable; I just want it to go away. I want it all to go away. NOW!

But I preach patience a lot, and I guess I sometimes forget what it actually means to me, personally.

Thanks!

Erica
Erica
9 years ago

Great post! Thank you for the reminder.

I’m 28. My only non-mortgage debt is the $12k left on my student loans. And I’m ready to be done with them. The sooner I get them paid off, the sooner I can redirect that monthly chunk of cash towards investing.

But I just got engaged.

My goal is to pay for the wedding in cash. So now I’m taking the money earmarked for extra student loan payments and squirreling it away for the wedding.

I’m pretty content with the decision, but sometimes I get impatient about being sidetracked from my earlier goal!

Andy
Andy
9 years ago

A recent story that I think about everytime I *think* I need something now regardless of whether or not I can afford it at the moment. A friend of ours just built a new house and told us that his wife had to have these couches from Crate & Barrel (my favorite store ever) even though their old ones were barely a year old (an very nice). Well they didn’t have any money in the bank or room on their credit cards so they took the remaining $4k left over from their mortgage and he bought her these couches. Of… Read more »

Hannah
Hannah
9 years ago

I’m 25 turning 26 this year and I’m about $16k in debt. I just took a trip to Europe with that $16k riding on my shoulders.

Do I regret taking the trip? No, but I’m more determined then ever to pay off this $16k!

I want to travel more and I would love to do that debt free. Your article was timed perfectly for me.

The older and wiser know that patience is a virtue, slowly but surely I want to get out of this debt. I need to keep telling myself that.

Thanks!

Jonathan
Jonathan
9 years ago

There definitely needs to be a balance – being financially patient doesn’t necessarily mean “putting off the good life until you’re old.” But it does mean recognizing that the choices you make today affect your future and setting goals and priorities with that in mind. And speaking of patience, I have had to deal with that lately but in reverse. I have 8 months left on a car loan and 10 years left on my student loans. I could pay it all off today and free up some cash flow, but the interest rates are so low that it’s in… Read more »

Megan
Megan
9 years ago

This post has some really great advice, especially for the audience of our Financial Literacy Program. As you say, J.D., too many young people want to live life the way they did when they were with their parents, and it just isn’t feasible, especially not right out of college. Did you know that many students think that they will be making an average of $145,000 when they graduate from college? (Charles Schwab, Teens and Money Survey, 2007) I graduated six years ago and am still barely making $30,000, and that’s a recent development. (Although I’m sure the economy didn’t help.… Read more »

Jason
Jason
9 years ago

I used to get frustrated with how long it takes to see results in my finances. I would get really excited on payday to be able to add money to my savings and pay down some debt. But then I have to wait another two weeks before I can do it again. Now I’m just learning to enjoy it and take it easy. People use the concept of slow changes being more lasting changes to talk about weight loss, but I think it also applies here. The patience you need and begin to develop in becoming financially fit also helps… Read more »

Lazy Guy
Lazy Guy
9 years ago

I love the link to last year’s model. I have a 15-year old tv. I sometimes lust after a sweet new flat-panel that I could hang on my wall, but then I think that I’ll have to cart off the big heavy old tv (or give it away on Craigslist), install the new tv, possibly upgrade my cable to HD, and probably upgrade to a blu ray DVD player. Thing is, I’m busy and just plain too lazy to do all of this. So the money goes into the bank intead and Community is still funny even though my tv… Read more »

Suzanne
Suzanne
9 years ago

Patience, delayed gratification and the marshmallow test seem to be a popular topic recently! I’ve come across three references today alone. Regarding whether it’s a question of perseverance or patience, I found this great quote from psychologist Eric Dlugokinski, University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in an old USA Today article: “Learning delayed gratification is an essential part of growing up, he maintains.”Kids who go through life getting everything they want aren’t at all prepared for coping with and facing the world, and they typically become dependent on someone else to cope for them. The major challenge for parents is… Read more »

Pat S.
Pat S.
9 years ago

I think you have hit the nail on the head. Patience is what causes us to delay gratification, through savings. Impatience leads us to debt, and cashing out of investments at the worst possible time.

The balance of the two and thoughtful contemplation of financial factors is what will set you free from financial worry.

One of my favorite posts.

SL
SL
9 years ago

I have been lurking for awhile, but never commented. Great post. I also would be interested in the stories of people who rented for a long time and bought with cash. I would like to know how this can be done. I have been careful with money my whole life and worked through undergrad, grad school and a low-paying postdoc with no debt. However, I feel overwhelmed that I am so far behind saving for retirement and hopefully, someday, a home (kids are a whole different story). One of the downsides of going for an advanced degree is that it… Read more »

Jonathan Harms
Jonathan Harms
9 years ago

I graduated from college a couple of years ago. I took out the maximum dollars on my loan so I didn’t have to get a job (but I didn’t not get a job to concentrate on my studies). Now that I have my first regular, semi-high income, I found that the actual cognitive decision to buying grown-up things was only only part of it. It isn’t so much of a concious effort (at least for me) as it is life not waiting to unfold practically. I CHOSE to finance a house because the interest rates were so low. I HAD… Read more »

Shalom
Shalom
9 years ago

SL @43, we did not pay cash, but we paid off our mortgage in 8 years. I think we could have paid it off sooner, but we didn’t make the decision to pay it off until about 5 years into the mortgage. I really think the single most important factor is renting less apartment than you can afford, and then buying less house than you can afford. My husband & I both have 2 post-graduate degrees, so we didn’t start earning salaries until our mid-to-late 20s, and we had grad school debt as well. So we rented until we were… Read more »

brooklyn money
brooklyn money
9 years ago

Lazy Guy, I am the same! I would replace my ginormous CRT if I could just figure out how to get it down the four flights of stairs to the curb, haha. Laziness/inertia does work financially in one’s favor sometimes.

Courtney
Courtney
9 years ago

@ SL – I understand your frustration about being ‘behind’ because of pursuing an advanced degree. I finished my PhD in 2008 at age 27 after getting the pittance of a grad school stipend for over 5 years (and then was unemployed for three months…) I do want to tell you that it IS worth it financially, so hang in there! It only took me about 18 months of actual employment to get within 10% of my husband’s salary. We are still ‘behind’ our friends in terms of a house and kids, but we have a 5 year plan that… Read more »

Crystal
Crystal
9 years ago

I agree that the key to building wealth is patience before you buy, but I’d also say that it is impatience towards building your income. That combination kicks personal finance butt! I personally rush a few buying decisions now and again, but overall, I am a money hoarder who rather keep it all for a rainy day. But I am completely impatient with attaining my dreams, which pushes me to work my 45 hour a week day job and to add on another 30 hours or more a week for blogging and networking online. This crazy, impatient drive to blog… Read more »

Mighty
Mighty
9 years ago

“We live in a Culture of Now. We’re constantly bombarded by messages trying to convince us to buy now, to spend now, to have what we want this very moment.” Great insight! I just got married and what we’re learning is to be patient with each other and in buying the things we want for our family — a house of our own and a car. I’m not sure when we will buy these but I’m sure it won’t be very long from now. 🙂

ldk
ldk
9 years ago

We made hugely different choices in our early 20’s than most of our peers (ie. paid $50 for a used lawnmower rather than put a new $300 one on a Sears card–and multiply those choices by the hundreds you make in the course of starting ‘real life.’) The difference in where we are now financially compared to most others our age (40) is staggering…and I don’t think we compromised our present much to do it–but we always saved for what we wanted (trip to Disney w/the kids) rather than use credit and that, as they say, has made all the… Read more »

shares