Happy Money – Buy Now, Consume Later

I began summarizing the key principles from Happy Money by Elizabeth Dunn & Michael Norton a while back but then my blogging career came to a grinding halt. My interest in Happy Money was recently reinvigorated when I heard Elizabeth Dunn speak at the XY Planning Network’s annual conference. Hearing her speak about the principles in Happy Money was the catalyst I needed to finish writing about them.

This post is focused on the book’s fourth concept – Pay Now, Consume Later. You can read summaries of the first three principles at the links below. I will address the last concept in a future post (seriously!).

    1. Buy Experiences
    2. Make It a Treat
    3. Buy Time
    4. Pay Now, Consume Later
    5. Invest in Others

Most of us have it backwards. We impulsively buy now and then pay for it later when our credit card payments come due. This ingrained approach to spending should be flipped on its head according to the research summarized in Happy Money.

The burden of convenience

Buying now and paying later is now easier than ever with ample access to credit and technology that lets us transact with a touch or a tap. The convenience is unquestionable but it comes with a price – detachment from our spending habits.

By using credit, most of us lose track of how much we spend. A study quoted in Happy Money asked thirty participants to estimate their credit card balances before opening their statements. How many of the participants do you think underestimated their balance? I guessed 90% but was wrong. The actual answer is 100%. Every participant underestimated their credit card bill and did so by an average of nearly 30%. Yikes!

Many of these credit card charges are reflexive purchases that add little or nothing to our satisfaction with life. When we add this to the pain associated with opening our statement at the end of the month, it is easy for our spending habits to give us an emotional hangover. We then feel burdened by debt if we don’t pay off our credit cards in full each month.

A better way

Imagine that you scheduled and paid for an upcoming vacation. Two months from now you will trade in your humdrum work routine for a snorkeling trip along the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. You will stay at an all-inclusive resort so all of your food, drinks, and activities are included in the fee you have already paid. Paying in advance benefits you in two ways.

First, delaying gratification by paying now and consuming later provides time for excitement about a purchase to build and for you to enjoy the anticipation. Half of the fun and benefit is the time you will spend thinking about how incredible the experience will be.

Second, paying for the trip up-front frees you from making and worrying about spending decisions while you’re on vacation. You can enjoy your snorkeling excursions and meals without having to think about money. The trip feels free.

Applying the principle

When consumption precedes payment, we are later reminded of the cost of our purchases at a time when the enjoyment of the purchase or experience is a distant memory. On the other hand, paying first and enjoying later gives us time to anticipate the excitement of the future experience and rewards us with the sensation that we’re experiencing something for free.

I encourage you to think of ways to make pay-now, consume-later work for you. Buy tickets to a concert or game in the future. Pay for your next vacation in advance. Save up for a big purchase over time. Utilizing this principle may not only result in happier spending but may also help you spend less.

In my next post, I will explore the final Happy Money concept: Invest in Others.

Happy Money – Buy Time

“Most people would benefit from using their money to change the amount of time they spend on three key activities: commuting, watching television, and hanging out with friends and family.”

I have been summarizing key principles from Happy Money by Elizabeth Dunn & Michael Norton. This post is focused on the third concept – Buy Time. If you missed the first two themes, click the links below.

  1. Buy Experiences
  2. Make It a Treat
  3. Buy Time
  4. Pay Now, Consume Later
  5. Invest in Others


Buy Time

By now, you’ve probably heard that you should use your money to buy experiences rather than stuff to improve the joy you get from spending. But experiences take time. If your days are full of commuting and working then there’s not much time left for anything else. No wonder so many of us default to spending our money on stuff and trying to relax by watching TV. The internet has made it easy to buy practically anything we want in a few clicks and to watch limitless amounts of TV series, movies, and Fail videos. Yet these activities are likely counterproductive to improving our happiness and sense of well-being.

Once our basic needs are met, time is our most valuable asset. Time to do the activities we enjoy. Time to exercise. Time to be with friends and family. The authors reviewed happiness research and listed some of the most and least pleasant ways we spend our time as shown in the chart below:

Rarely Unpleasant Rarely Pleasant
  • Exercise
  • Reading
  • Praying
  • Having sex
  • Working
  • Commuting
  • Shopping
  • Doing housework

Consider Ben, who drives 45 minutes to work, plugs away at his desk all day, and then drives 45 minutes back home (an hour if he hits traffic). By the time he and his spouse  (who also works full-time) make and clean up dinner and get the kids in bed, he is exhausted and plops down on the couch to watch TV. An hour or two later, he goes to bed without having been active all day. Rinse and repeat the rest of the week.

Now look back at the Rarely Pleasant list above. Ben spends most of his days doing unpleasant things. But he has a big house, nice car, and family to help support. What’s a guy to do?

For starters, he could find a new job or move closer to work. Commuting is one of the least pleasant ways to spend time. If you commute, you not only spend that time in a bad mood but also cannot use it on something more fulfilling like going biking with your kids or meeting a friend for coffee or hitting the gym. Commuters report less job and free-time satisfaction than non-commuters. Ben may have to take a pay cut to move closer to home, but he could use that additional time in ways that generally improve happiness such as exercise, volunteering, and socializing. The authors of Happy Money point out that the average American worker works two hours of every day just to pay for their cars. Yikes!

Next, Ben could turn off his TV. The average American watches two months of television per year according to Happy Money. Wow! While an occasional show can be beneficial, too much TV leads to decreased happiness. By limiting his TV viewing, Ben will get back 5-10 hours per week to spend on activities that will have a positive effect on his satisfaction with life.

Now that we have Ben all squared away and happy, what else can we do to benefit from the “buy time” principle? Learn to ask ourselves how our spending choices will affect our time. Here are some examples:

  • How will this new pair of shoes affect my time next Tuesday?
  • Will buying a Ultra HD 4K TV compel me to watch more TV?
  • Will accepting this new job offer give me more or less spare time?

The authors state, “By consistently asking yourself how a purchase will affect your time, your dominant mind-set should shift, pushing you toward happier choices.”

What are some of the ways you have bought time for yourself? How did you use it?

Happy Money – Make It A Treat

“Abundance…is the enemy of appreciation.”

I am continuing my review of Happy Money by Elizabeth Dunn & Michael Norton. Let’s take a look at the second major concept from the book – Make It a Treat. (You can click the “Buy Experiences” link below if you missed it.)

  1. Buy Experiences
  2. Make It a Treat
  3. Buy Time
  4. Pay Now, Consume Later
  5. Invest in Others
Katie's Cupcakes

photo by Andrew Caird

Make It a Treat

Living in a wealthy country in an age when goods flow quickly across the world, we have unprecedented and continuous access to nearly anything we want when we want it. Our favorite fruits are available year-round even when the ground is frozen outside. We can get the best chocolate and coffee from around the world at our local stores everyday.

Sounds great, right? Actually, overabundance can desensitize us to life’s pleasures. Just knowing we can have what we want anytime we want it makes us appreciate it less. If you get an extra-hot, double-shot, skinny mocha everyday, it will lose its luster.

Advertisers keen to human behavior know that we appreciate things more when they appear scarce: “Limited time only!”, “Three left at this price!”.  In Michigan where I live, people rejoice each summer when Bell’s Brewery releases its Oberon brew because it is only available part of the year. Our brains like change. We will be better off if we give our brains what they want by making our purchases a treat.

Here are some make-it-a-treat tips you can put into action:
  • Change your routine. If your daily latte has become mundane, limit yourself to one or two per week.
  • Take a break. Don’t binge watch your favorite TV show. Take some time off between episodes. Even commercials can make us appreciate our favorite shows more because it gives us a few moments of anticipation.
  • Buy new experiences to share with your partner. New adventures are great for nurturing long-term relationships.
  • Take time to enjoy and savor food. A large order of fries in Paris is 30% smaller than a large order in the U.S. but French patrons take 50% longer to eat them than their U.S. counterparts.
  • Travel less. If you spend a lot of money on frequent travel, you may not appreciate each trip much.
  • Appreciate what you have. As the authors point out, “Knowing something won’t last forever can make us appreciate it more.”
  • Think about your future self. Before you buy, consider how a purchase will make you feel after the initial exhilaration of the “test drive” wears off. Our purchases give us less joy as time passes.

I was explaining the make-it-a-treat concept to my eight year old daughter and I saw a light bulb go on. She said, “It’s like birthdays. It wouldn’t be special if you had one everyday”. Out of the mouth of babes.