We are told experiences are supposed to make us happier than stuff — turns out that may apply mostly to the affluent. The famous marshmallow test that predicts future success, based on which kids can resist an immediate treat? That research has similar problems. Meanwhile, the jury’s still out on whether willpower is something you can “use up.”
Studies about these issues shaped a fair amount of personal finance advice in recent years. The fact that researchers may have drawn incorrect or at least incomplete conclusions reminds us that blanket advice on money is risky. What works for one person may not work for the next, particularly if their financial lives are vastly different.
Myth 1: Experiences bring more happiness
Many studies have found people get more happiness from spending on experiences than buying material things. The 2003 study that kicked off all this research, however, revealed some socioeconomic differences: People’s preference for experiences rose with income.
Until recently, those differences hadn’t been further explored by researchers. Wendy Wood, professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California, suspected bias: After all, the people doing the research and the journalists writing about it tended to be middle-class or higher income.
So Wood and two of her graduate students examined 23 studies and conducted three of their own focusing on socioeconomic background. Their findings echoed the original study, showing that people with less education and income were happier after purchasing material goods or were equally happy about how they spent their money, whether on things or experiences.
Wood is now researching why this is true, but points to theories that people of higher socioeconomic status tend to be more focused on self-development, while those with fewer resources focus more on getting their money’s worth.
“If you have a restricted budget and you can only spend a small amount of money, then each purchase has to be really worthwhile,” says Wood.
Myth 2: Marshmallows predict future success
The famous “marshmallow test” put a treat in front of preschoolers and promised that if they didn’t eat it, they could have two treats after 15 minutes. Researchers found that preschoolers’ ability to put off eating the marshmallow correlated with academic performance and better stress management when they were older.
Personal-finance types love this research because it highlights the importance of delayed gratification. Putting off spending today in favor of investing for tomorrow is a key to building wealth.
A study published earlier this year, however, found a much smaller correlation between delayed marshmallow consumption and future success — and most of that was explained by a child’s background.
“Socioeconomic status was heavily tied to one’s ability to delay gratification,” said Tyler Watts, assistant professor of research at New York University. “It’s easier to delay gratification if your basic needs are met and if you have financial security.”
Myth 3: Willpower is a limited resource
Since 1998, researchers have been finding that our self-control is a limited resource that can be exhausted, a process known as “ego depletion.” If we resist the urge to eat a chocolate-chip cookie, for example, we are supposed to have less willpower to refuse the next temptation. Rather than relying on self-control when it comes to money, financial advisers tell us to put our saving and investing on automatic so we have fewer choices to make (and potentially screw up).
An attempt by 23 labs to replicate one of the most famous ego depletion studies, however, failed to find the same effects. Meanwhile, researchers from the University of Miami and the University of Minnesota who reviewed more than 100 published and unpublished studies found little support for the idea that willpower is a finite resource and even some evidence that self-control improves with use.
The idea of ego depletion isn’t quite dead, though. Two large experiments conducted by Texas A&M University researchers and published late last year once again found evidence that using your willpower once leaves you with less of it for the next round.
Common sense to the rescue
When studies collide, consider common sense. Putting saving and investing on automatic can help you accumulate more, without relying on willpower. Automation also sidesteps the delayed gratification issue — you don’t see the “treat,” or the money in your paycheck, since it’s automatically whisked away. And when you do have extra cash, spend it on what makes you happy — not on what anyone else thinks you should want.
Liz Weston is a writer at NerdWallet. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @lizweston.