Would you like to raise your children to be wise money managers?  Teach them to be two-marshmallow kids.  In other words, teach them how to wait.

Over 40 years ago, Stanford University psychologist Walter Mischel conducted what has become perhaps the most famous experiment on the power of delayed gratification.  Four-year-olds were taken into a room one at a time by a researcher.  The children were seated at a table.  In front of them was a plate with two marshmallows.  The children were told that the researcher had to leave the room for a little bit and that while he was gone they could eat one marshmallow right away.  Or, if they could wait for the researcher to return, they could eat both marshmallows.  About 30 percent of the kids were able to wait for the greater reward.

Years later, after the children graduated from high school, Mischel followed up with them and found startling differences between the two groups. The children who could hold out for both marshmallows were found to be more confident, effective, self-assertive, and dependable. They were better able to cope with the frustrations of life, less held back by stress, more likely to embrace challenges, and still able to delay gratification in pursuit of their goals.

The children who could not resist the temptation to eat one treat right away were found to be more socially reserved, stubborn, indecisive, and easily frustrated. They were more prone to be immobilized by stress, more likely to overreact to irritations, and still unable to put off gratification.

The two groups even achieved far different S.A.T. scores, with the two-marshmallow kids scoring an average of 210 points higher than the one-marshmallow kids.

The ability to delay gratification is also one of the most important keys to wise money management. Being able to wait is what separates the "buy now!" person from the buy smart person.  It's what enables people to put off replacing an old car in favor of paying down debt, or to patiently save for a distant goal like retirement. 

What's the secret to delayed gratification?  The marshmallow experiment kids who won their battle with temptation simply diverted their attention away from the treats. They closed their eyes, made up games, and even talked or sang to themselves in order to pass the time until the researcher returned.  See this video for a humorous re-enactment of the experiment.

In order to foster the ability to delay gratification in your children, remind them that God has given them the ability to resist temptation.  As the apostle Paul pointed out, "No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it" (1 Corinthians 10:13).

To help them live out those words, Mischel and others who have studied delayed gratification suggest the following:

  • The reward for waiting should be something the children want, not something the parents think they should want.
  • Adjust your expectations as to how long a child should be able to wait to the age of your child and the situation. Kindergartners have a very different sense of time than teenagers do.
  • Make sure earning a reward isn't too difficult for the children. Helping to plant a tree may be fine. Tilling the entire back yard is probably going too far.
  • Make the process rewarding. If you want your children to practice piano, offer them a reward, but also help them find music they will enjoy. 
  • Suggest things for your child to think about while waiting.
  • Get involved in projects with your children that require both of you to be patient. Even something as simple as baking cookies together can teach the rewards of delayed gratification.

Of course, the best teaching technique is the example we set.  Our children are more likely to be good savers if they see us patiently saving for things we'd like to buy instead of buying now on plastic.  The old adage is true - when it comes to teaching our children, more will be caught than taught. 


Matt Bell waited patiently for six years as he and his wife built savings before embarking on his full-time career as a personal finance writer and speaker.  Today, Matt is the author of two books published by NavPress: "Money, Purpose, Joy" (September 2008) and "Money Strategies for Tough Times" (April 2009).  He speaks at churches, conferences, universities, and other venues throughout the country.  To learn more about his work, visit his web site at www.moneypurposejoy.com.