When faced with the choice to splurge on a new iPad or make an additional contribution to your retirement account, we all know that the wiser thing to do would be to add to that 401(k) or IRA—after all, it’s your long-term self that’s at stake. Isn’t the ability to live comfortably at age 65 so much more important than watching your favorite Netflix show on the train to work tomorrow?
Turns out a new study from several business professors suggests that thinking too broadly about our lives (i.e., imagining an older version of ourselves) can often be what causes us to indulge (i.e., buying that iPad now).
In one experiment, the researchers prompted some participants to think about their life tomorrow, while others were prompted to think about their life five years from now. All the subjects were then asked whether they would choose to make a more indulgent purchase, like a gift certificate for a gourmet dinner for two, or buy something functional, like a gift certificate for a textbook (all the participants were undergrads).
It turns out the people who thought about life five years from now were more likely to pick the fancy dinner, while those who thought about life tomorrow were likelier to pick the textbook.
Here’s how the study authors explain the difference: When we think more abstractly about our life, like where we see ourselves in five years, we also tend to start getting philosophical and contemplative. Once we remember that our main goals are to be happy and to fully enjoy ourselves, we fear that one day we’ll regret not eating that gourmet dinner—so we decide to spend the money.
On the other hand, when we think more concretely about our life tomorrow, we tend to focus on our daily habits and recall more of our immediate, short-term goals like saving money, sticking to a budget and exercising self-control. That’s when we go for the textbook and start studying.
How can you apply these findings the next time you’re smitten by the Apple products in a window display case? Start by setting a weekly money goal for yourself, and thinking about that specific objective every time you’re weighing a potential purchase. In the meantime, let us know if you figure out the meaning of life.