Delaying spending can make you happier

letch illo online jan 10th money spending 10 dollar note
letch illo online jan 10th money spending 10 dollar note

Have you noticed that self-denial is creeping slowly back into vogue? Oh sure, it's not yet enough to truly counterbalance our society's rampant consumerism and it's often only for a limited time - more Dry January than lifelong teetotallerhood.

But it's interesting to see all the Buy Nothing groups pop up and all the articles about people who gave up buying new clothes for a year and found themselves, or not, in the process.

When I shared one of those articles on Facebook, a friend added me to a closed group for fashion lovers who want to curb their shopping habits. It's been fascinating to read about other people's struggles and goals and share my own.

While I don't have a wardrobe full of clothing with the tags still on and I've never used Afterpay, a new reverse lay-by system where you buy now and pay later with several direct debits, I'm also not a monk. Like most people, I'll sometimes buy things I don't need for a quick pick-me-up.

However, retail therapy is really anything but. I've been reading Curing Affluenza, the new book by Australian economist Richard Denniss, which I received for Christmas. Denniss distinguishes between materialism - love of things - and consumerism - love of buying new things.

Consumerism is the thrill of hunting for a bargain, the quest for the new or unique, or the moment when the shop assistant hands you a new purchase, beautifully wrapped as if it's a present. At best it can provide only a transient sense of satisfaction, Denniss writes.

But materialism is deriving satisfaction from what we already own, and caring for and maintaining our belongings. The people in my Facebook group are trying to make that transition, sharing outfit photos entirely composed of clothing they already own, or tips for sewing and repurposing clothing with belts, buttons and crocheted collars.

Denniss and my Facebook pals share a desire to help the environment: the group's thread on ethical fashion brands is one of the most popular. Saving money is another common goal, but I've picked up on something else too - a sense that people are curbing spending to find meaning and contentment. In fact, the latest research suggests they're on the right track.

In their 2013 book Happy Money, Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton explore how to best spend money for the biggest pay-off in happiness.

Dunn is associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and Norton is professor of business administration at Harvard.

The book suggests that spending money on experiences, time and other people are things that make you happy, something I've written about before. But it also has interesting insights into how frugal spending and delayed gratification are paths to happiness.

First, if you make something a treat, you'll enjoy it more.

In a 2009 study students came into a psychology lab to eat a piece of chocolate then returned the following week to eat a second piece. Overall the students enjoyed it less the second time around because the novelty had worn off.

In a separate 2012 study, students had an initial chocolate tasting and one group then promised to abstain for the rest of the week, while the other group received a kilogram-bag of chocolate and pledged to eat as much as they comfortably could. They returned the following week to eat more chocolate, but only those who'd abstained in between tastings enjoyed it as much as the first week.

Second, there's the argument for "pay now, consume later" rather than the opposite behaviour enabled by credit cards and services such as Afterpay. Not just because credit can encourage us to spend beyond our means, but because there's actually a happiness dividend to paying in advance.

Economists have a term for the discomfort of parting with cash - the "pain of paying". The more you can disconnect payment from what you're buying, the more you'll enjoy the experience or item.

So an all-inclusive holiday that you've prepaid is likely to be more enjoyable than an identical holiday at any identical price that you pay as you go. Sure, from the point of view of maximising your money, you should delay payment as long as possible so you earn interest, but from the point of view of maximising your happiness, the opposite is true.

Researchers have found we experience a "wrinkle in time" where events that lie in the future provoke more emotion than identical events in the past. This means we derive more joy from things coming in the future than from things already received. So buying a concert ticket a month in advance is better value than buying it on the day, even at the same price.

However, this effect also means we are tormented more by things we dread than things that have already happened. Cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy commonly experience vomiting and other side effects in the 24 hours before treatment, while people consistently rank Friday as their favourite day rather than Sunday because of the anticipation of the weekend versus Monday.

The dread of the credit card bill can be potent too.

But if everyone bought less wouldn't the economy tank? Denniss argues no.

After all, it's not very efficient to spend billions of dollars buying consumer goods we don't need in order to generate a small slice of company tax revenue that we can then spend on education and health. Denniss likens it to baking a tray of muffins purely to consume the crunchy muffin tops. It just locks people into a cycle of work, buy, consume, die.

Certainly such a profound shift in culture would transform the global economy, but Denniss argues this shift is necessary if we want to avoid the worst of climate change and environmental devastation.

Caitlin Fitzsimmons is the Money editor. Ross Gittins is on leave.

Find Caitlin on Facebook or Twitter or read her columns on money, work and life.

This story Delaying spending can make you happier first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.