It’s interesting to think that deciding whether or not to eat a marshmallow could have such profound consequences on the outcome of our lives, but results from an experiment carried out by Stanford University researchers years ago seems to demonstrate just that.

Sometime during the 1960’s, Stanford University psychologist Walter Mischel conducted a behavioral experiment by which a number of four-year old children from the Bing Nursery School were each placed in a room with one marshmallow and a choice: wait 15 minutes before eating the marshmallow and earn a second one. Eat the marshmallow immediately and receive nothing else.

All told, just one-third of the more than 600 four-year-olds tested successfully resisted their temptation to eat the marshmallow. When those same children were revisited as young adults many years later, those who had held off eating the marshmallow were generally more successful in life than their impatient counterparts, both academically and even in their ability to maintain healthy relationships.

Delayed Gratification: Higher Payoffs

The point of Mischel’s experiment was to show how a child’s ability to hold off eating the marshmallow correlated with their willpower. A four-year-old that can wait fifteen minutes for a marshmallow will, in the future, be better adept at fighting the urge to hang out with friends instead of completing their homework. Or, maybe the young child that eats the marshmallow is more likely to save up their summer wages or allowance rather than blowing through it each time they get paid.

The fact that almost 40% of working Americans don’t think they’ll be able to afford retirement could signal just one of two things; one, that a number of Americans consumers have been affected by unfortunately circumstances like losses in the stock market or job loss or two, many Americans would have eaten the first marshmallow if they’d participated in Mischel’s experiment.

How Can We Fight Our Urge To Spend:

We’ve all been guilty of acting in impulse from time to time—remember that shirt you bought yourself at the mall when you should have been shopping for your friend’s birthday gift? Let’s try to face reality here: we all want the marshmallow now. But, it’s important to recognize that fighting our spending urges can reap higher rewards. If you have a hard time delaying gratification then here are some techniques that may help you along the way:

1. Put it back on the rack, and come back another day:

Those jeans fit great, right? But, do you really need a pair of $100 pants right now? Put them back on the rack or, even better, place them on hold. This will give you plenty of time to reevaluate your wardrobe at home to see if the pants (or, shoes, or 3D television) is necessary. If you don’t feel the same way about them after a day or two then you’ll know the answer.

2. Make a list (and stick to it):

Lists are great because they take the guesswork out of shopping for anything, but only as long as you stick to it. Wandering into a crowded grocery store without a list is the official recipe for unintended purchases (like buying that carton of milk while forgetting about the one you already have hiding behind the orange juice). If possible, leave the kids at home—they usually have a shopping agenda of their own.

3. Brick-and-Mortar is your friend:

The mobile payments market has blown up in recent years, making it easier to make online purchases at the drop of a hat. Sure, it’s convenient, but that much purchasing power at the tip of your fingers can also leave your wallet weeping. In fact, almost 40% of e-commerce purchases are impulse buys influenced heavily by the design of a website. The solution is simple: get away from your computer (or your phone or tablet) and head to the store to make a final decision. If you’re still uncertain, refer to #1.

Everyone Wants Two Marshmallows:

Mischel recognized that every child who participated in Mischel’s experiment wanted two marshmallows. The children that were successful at delaying their gratification found ways to distract themselves—like playing with their hair, or placing their hands over their eyes. Said Mischel of his experiment: “If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it…The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.”

Finding the right barriers to place between yourself and your spending impulses is important to developing good saving habits. If eating out is your weakness then, for one month, avoid restaurants and put the money into a savings account. Seeing the amount of money you save in that time could be motivation enough to give it up altogether.

Not all of us may have been born naturally inclined to resist our impulses, but fortunately it’s a skill that can be developed with time. As with any new skill, practice makes perfect. With time, you can finally be the kid with two marshmallows.

What techniques do you use to avoid impulse buying? Sound off in the comments section.

Carolyn Okomo is a personal finance writer and the Tuesday columnist covering financial literacy and all other things money-related for You can follow her tweets @CarolynMBT

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