Delayed Gratification vs Delayed Happiness – Are you Lying to Yourself?

The difference between delaying gratification and delaying happiness on the path to Financial Independence.

If there is one skill you need in order to reach Financial Independence it is this one: delayed gratification. The FIRE community as a whole is very good at it. Maybe a little too good.

A certain level of self-control and is crucial on the path to FI. So is the ability to avoid instant gratification. However, delaying gratification can be a double-edged sword, especially if it is used as an excuse or a distraction.

Ask yourself: Are you practising self-discipline to achieve your big goals or are you really just delaying happiness?

What is Delayed Gratification?

Delayed gratification is the ability to resist temptations and immediate pleasures in order to achieve more important, longer-term goals. Delaying gratification means disciplining yourself so that you can enjoy greater rewards in the future. It’s an important factor for success.

Here are some examples:

  • Saying no to a night out (instant gratification) so you can study for your upcoming exams.
  • Not eating chocolate every day (instant gratification) so you look good in your swimsuit in summer.
  • Giving up smoking (instant gratification) so you stay healthy for your children.
  • Saving and investing your money instead of blowing it on a holiday in Bali (instant gratification) so you can retire early.

Delayed Gratification and Financial Success

It is obvious that delaying gratification and a certain degree of willpower are important prerequisites for any successful FIRE plan. It’s a major factor in all the major “levers” you can pull to get you to FI:

  • Spending less
  • Saving and investing more and better
  • Optimising/increasing income

So without this skill, you will probably get stuck on the hedonic treadmill without ever building enough wealth to retire early and fulfil your dreams.

However, you can have too much of a good thing as we all know. Delayed gratification is an excellent tool when it comes to avoiding impulse purchases and building wealth for the future. However, when it turns into delayed happiness, it’s a problem.

Let’s examine the dynamics at play here.


Your “Why of FI” is Just the First Step

In the FIRE community, we often talk about our “Why of FI”. And don’t get me wrong – it is definitely important to know why you are pursuing FIRE.

However, it is just as important to realise that defining your “Why of FI” really is just the start of a long process.

People often say things like “I want to reach FI so I start my own photography business”. But instead of taking steps towards achieving their goal (starting their own business), they spend days researching which brokerage firm offers the cheapest trades and which ETFs have marginally lower MERs. They tell themselves that once they reach FIRE they can finally do what they have always wanted to do.

I have some news for you: You don’t need $1 Million, $2 Million or any other arbitrary number in your portfolio before you are allowed to be happy and work on the things you are interested in.

Here is the formula manly of us in the FIRE community use (knowingly or unknowingly):

  1. Reach FI
  2. Be happy (live the ‘Why of FI’)

This is not how it works, unfortunately.

This really is no different from someone saying “once I lose weight I’ll start dating” or “once I feel a bit more confident I’ll ask for a raise”.

Are you a member of the ‘once I hit that magic number’ club?

A Better Formula

If you don’t work towards reaching your life goals along the path to FIRE, you likely won’t be happy when you get there. Money is just that – money. Money can make living your best life easier, but it won’t magically make it all happen for you.

Here is a better formula:

  1. Figure out what you want out of life
  2. Find the type of Financial Independence that suits your lifestyle and goals best. For some, the standard path to FI is the logical and most sensible choice. We opted for Flamingo FI, but Coast FI, other Semi-FIRE strategies might be a better fit for you. My point is that there are lots of options to choose from and you can always change your plan along the way.
  3. Strive to be happy (live your ‘Why of FI’) WHILE you work towards FI

If you follow this approach you won’t actually need to change anything in your life once you get to FI.

Mr. Flamingo and I prioritised building a great life for our family while we were chasing our financial goals. When we finally reached our target and semi-retired in 2020 we had a very smooth transition – and nothing in our lives changed (except for the fact that we are now working less).

Don’t delay your happiness along the path to FI. While it is definitely necessary to make some sacrifices along the way you should never put off the things that you know will make you happy long-term.

Don’t hold off on pursuing your goals while you chase Financial Independence!

Are you using FI and Delayed Gratification as an Excuse?

If you want to start a photography business, then start a photography business!

I’m not saying that you should quit your six-figure job to be a full-time photographer. In order to reach Financial Independence, you need a decent income so you can invest on a regular basis.

However, it is completely possible to start working towards your goal while you work towards FI. Take a photography class, start a portfolio by offering family and friends free photo sessions, build a website.

Just take little steps towards your big goal over time. Eventually, you will have both – your life goal (a photography business or whatever else you want) AND Financial Independence.

The same principle applies to all other goals in life, by the way. Don’t wait until you reach FI to train for that marathon, lose weight, find a partner, move overseas…

Remember, not blowing $200 on a night out so you can invest it instead is delayed gratification. Not buying a new phone every year is delayed gratification. Not looking after your health, cutting costs so much that you can’t enjoy yourself anymore, and putting off plans to find work you actually enjoy are all examples of delayed happiness.

If you delay your own happiness, you are likely using FI as an excuse. Maybe because you are scared. Maybe because you don’t believe in yourself. Maybe because you don’t want to fail. Don’t.

If you are using FI as an excuse to live your best life, then you should ask yourself why and start working on these issues first. They won’t magically disappear once you become a (multi-)millionaire.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Have you caught yourself delaying happiness along the path to FI?

20 thoughts on “Delayed Gratification vs Delayed Happiness – Are you Lying to Yourself?”

  1. I was thinking the same thing…”Damn…..that’s exactly what I’ve been doing”.

    In my case I’ve got a 1 year old at home, a wife working part time from home and I work a job 56± hours a week. In our little free time we try not to spend money so we can rush to FI and FINALLY live the life we want. She wants to work in her clinic instead of from a computer and I’d love to be wood/metal working in the garage. We would both like to spend a little more time with the kiddo too.

    I guess we should be focusing on slowly introducing those things back into our lives.
    Excellent observation and great article!

    • Trust me, you are not alone. It can be so tempting to just try and get the big goal done. We have a 1-year-old too and it’s such a precious age. Could you make some changes now to enjoy a bit more family time? Remember, when they start school you’ll have a lot more time to work and focus on goals and projects. All the best!

    • When I started out on the path to FI 10 years ago I was the same, I just wanted to not have to go to work. I can relate to the “fog of work” feeling. Could you take some time off to figure out what you want to do once you don’t need the job anymore? I do think it’s really important to retire to something as well as from the job.

  2. I’m the queen of delayed gratification.
    And… now that I’m here and fully retired, I’m so glad that I am. Life is great!
    There was nothing that I put off that I regret now.
    My secret is that I realised early on that in order to have a happy life, you have to notice and appreciate all the small things that happen. After all, the small things happen FAR more frequently than the big things!
    So I was using delayed gratification as a heavy tool towards my eventual freedom, but still enjoying my life because I was surrounded by lovely ‘little’ things every day.

    • Good point, focusing on the small things really helps. It sounds like you were very deliberate during your journey (and from memory I think you enjoyed your job as a teacher?). I think delayed gratification can definitely be a great tool if used in the right circumstances.

  3. I’ve been letting something crystalise – which is you can’t be what you can’t see (the importance of role models/evidence) and you can’t be what you can’t feel (so you’ve got to be able to enjoy things now and appreciate where you are).

  4. I’ve never read an article that applied to so many of the bloggers in the personal finance community. Definitely bookmarked this because I have been guilty of delaying happiness. Keep up the great work Mrs. Flamingo!

  5. Thanks for this article. There’s definitely a big difference between delayed gratification and delayed happiness. I allow myself some lifestyle inflation where it aligns with what I want from life. I am also working on building some flexibility into my work already (in terms of location as well as time spent at work) to slowly take steps towards my ideal work life balance. It’s a journey, and I’m a big fan of test-driving things before going all in.

    • Sounds like you are very deliberate with your choices along the path to FI, that’s the best way to avoid delayed happiness I think. I agree, test-driving different ideas makes a lot of sense, we do the same.


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