When I was a kid, my dad (perhaps accidentally) stumbled on a way to grow my self-control. In addition to my $10 a week allowance which could be spent on whatever I wanted, he gave me $5 a week that I needed to save. This started when I was about 8 years old or so and continued until I went to college. Once I had $100 saved up in my dresser drawer, we went to the bank and opened a savings account for me.
After that, I’d continued getting that $5 a week. Once the amount grew large, he’d say it was time to go to the bank and make a deposit and we’d head over there. These deposits didn’t happen often. At first, it was every few months, then once or twice a year, then every few years. I remember depositing more than $500 at least once – which is 2 full years of savings.
The main thing this taught me was self-control. There was this abundance of money right there that I couldn’t spend on all kinds of cool things — video games, baseball cards, magic cards or even pogs! There were times when I did secretly dip into this fund, but then repaid it back with my own allowance.
For this experiment, my dad didn’t ever chastize me for any behavior with money. It was all a co-learning experience. I think that’s an important part. If done wrong, this experiment could have fractured my relationship with money.
I learned a lot from this endeavor. How bank accounts work, how to write a deposit slip, how to withdraw money and how to not spend money when I have it.
Later On in High School
By high school, this fund was up to over $2,000. My friends and I noticed a number of clubs around the school were selling candy at crazy markups. We thought “Hey, we can buy candy cheap and undercut their prices” – and my first side hustle was born.
Me and 3 friends would take out money from my bank account on Monday, head over to Sams Club and buy hundreds of dollars in candy to sell. We would divvy it up so we all had a variety and even recruited other people to sell for us earning a cut of the profits. At the peak, we were probably selling $300-$400 in candy a day (net) with profits around $75.
One sales technique that was extremely helpful was going to the bank and getting half-dollar coins and 2-dollar bills. People would buy candy just to get that novel currency in return. (who doesn’t love two dollar bills?)
Having the capital to try something like this was only possible because I had that savings handy. There’s no way my dad knew that I was going to grow up and invest it in a sugary enterprise, but having the option allowed it to happen.
Eventually, this money would become my college laptop fund – a Compaq computer I used the hell of back in 2000.
Why Grow Self Control in Kids?
The reasons for growing self-control may be self-evident but it’s important to point out. With increased self-control, you’ll have increased self-preservation, self-assertion and self-fulfillment. An article on SkillsYouNeed puts it well:
The basic premise of self-control is the use of reason to control instinct, whether that instinct is for something bad or against something that is good for us. In an age of instant gratification, it is perhaps an unusual and under-valued quality but, nonetheless, one worth striving for.
The connection between self-control and reason is the important part to me. There’s a core part of self-control in everything from mindfulness to science and everything in between. This can even help grow focus and be more productive by living in the moment. Growing this muscle early can help kids ask “why” and come to their own conclusions.
The Marshmallow Test
One of the most famous studies on self-control is the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. The premise was simple: kids were offered a sugary treat now, or two if they waited 15 minutes. During that time the researcher would leave the room and the kid would be alone with for 15 minutes with the marshmallow, cookie or pretzel.
What kids did during this period was actually very entertaining.
When followed up with decades later, the kids that opted for delayed gratification had the best life outcomes – that is they had better SAT scores, more education, lower body mass index and more.
Having self-control as a kid was a jumping off point to many successes in life. In the early retirement community, self-control is a shared cornerstone that’s not just a nice to have, but a necessary requirement.
Note: It’s been recently discovered that kids with the highest self-control also lived in houses with the highest income. This throws some of the findings from this study into question.
Adapting This to Adults
Since “becoming an adult” and having more money to spend (or credit), the marshmallow test holds a new meaning for me. It’s no longer the sugary dessert that would be luring me in; it’s the expensive dinner out now, rather than cooking for myself and taking longer. It’s the expensive vacation I could take now rather than using points and planning to take a similar trip for much cheaper. It’s paying to see a movie in theaters rather than waiting for it to come out on Netflix.
When looking through this lens, a great many purchases that I make today are me choosing not to delay gratification. I can try to justify it to myself and say “I have the money but not the time”, but that doesn’t change the choice. This is an area I want to try to improve on in the new year by asking myself:
Can I delay this purchase?
A $100 Challenge
Tim Robbins has mentioned that he keeps $100 (well $300 actually) on him at all times. His reason for this is a little different than mine:
I keep three $100 bills in a money clip. The $100 bill technique was taught to me by my mentor, Jim Rohn. The idea behind it was that even if you don’t have money, seeing the hundred dollar bills would change your psychology and train your brain to think rich instead of poor. As a result, you would attract more money and success.
His focus is around bringing success into his life. He’s looking at it 2 steps down the line. Success is a product of self-control in my eyes, and this is a path that makes sense. If you can hold $100 in your wallet and not spend it for days, weeks or months, you can start to better understand your spending habits.
Self-control has a lot of aspects, but not spending money when you can is a major place of growth if you want to be financially independent.
Did you learn about self-control at an early age? If so what worked? What works today?