Many people agree that there should be more personal finance education in school. This is supposed to be one of the keys to making the average person save more money, have less credit card debt, and invest wisely. You know, teach a high schooler the wonder of compound interest and the related trap of credit card minimum payments.
But I’ve perhaps the problem is even more basic than that. I recently ran across something called the Marshmallow Experiment by Walter Mischel. Check out this video (hat tip to Rob Garcia of LendingClub):
Here’s a quick summary of the original 1960s study. A group of four-year olds were put in a room with just a chair and a table. The kids could pick either a marshmallow, a cookie, or a pretzel stick. The child was then given an option. They could either eat one marshmallow right away, or if they waited until the researcher left and came back, they could have two marshmallows. How long could they wait? The researchers continued tracking them and found that those with the ability to wait were better adjusted, had less behavioral problems, and scored an average of 210 points higher on the Scholastic Aptitude Test.
Teaching Delayed Gratification
Along the same lines, I think a core requirement of good personal finance “education” is teaching people delayed gratification. Imagine how many adults wouldn’t be able to wait a year to get $500 versus getting $250 today. If you can exercise such self-control, then you won’t buy things on credit cards because you “gotta have it now”. You’ll be able to save money towards a retirement that may be decades away. It will be easy to spend less than you earn.
How do you teach delayed gratification? Since it would require years of practice, you’d want to start early and the responsibility would fall heavily on the parents. From an interview with Mischel in a related New Yorker article:
“This is where your parents are important,” Mischel says. “Have they established rituals that force you to delay on a daily basis? Do they encourage you to wait? And do they make waiting worthwhile?” According to Mischel, even the most mundane routines of childhood—such as not snacking before dinner, or saving up your allowance, or holding out until Christmas morning—are really sly exercises in cognitive training: we’re teaching ourselves how to think so that we can outsmart our desires.
But of course, not all parents will do that. So the problem is then how do we systematically teach children this skill in school, which is what researchers are working on now. In my opinion, that would be the ultimate in personal finance education. Because if you don’t have the ability to defer gratification, then learning about index funds isn’t going to help very much.