Friday 24 May 2019

John Masterson: 'How are you in the whole area of self-control?'

'A credit card exists so that you can have today what you cannot afford until tomorrow'. Stock image
'A credit card exists so that you can have today what you cannot afford until tomorrow'. Stock image

Anyone who has ever taken any interest in psychology will have come across the concept of delayed gratification. It is about self-control, the ability to put off some pleasure to a time in the future rather than dive straight in for the goodies.

It is the 'will I study?' versus the 'will I watch television?' dilemma of the student. It is the 'will I have a bar of chocolate now or wait until Friday?' battle of everyone who ever diets.

We have all had, and lost, these battles. Experiments were conducted with children who were told they could have one sweet now, or more if they waited 15 minutes. The experimenter left the room and the children wrestled with their desires. Today it would probably be considered child abuse. I have never been much troubled with temptation. Like Oscar Wilde, I know how to get rid of it. Just give in.

Why does how we deal with the present versus the future matter? There is evidence that people who are good at self-control make their way through life with more satisfaction and success. People who are able to manage their impulses don't get into fights. Or inject heroin. Or become obese.

It will be worth it in the long run we are told. People who can manage their finances don't get into debt. That is the theory. Would that it were that easy. The problem is that there are massive organisations out there whose very existence depends on our inability to control our desires. Some of them are drug dealers and some of them we call banks. I find it more helpful to think of them as money dealers. And we all know how powerful a drug money is. Just a little more of it, now, and our lives would be so much better.

A credit card exists so that you can have today what you cannot afford until tomorrow. I recently met someone who'd burnt all his cards and was highly amusing about the problems of trying to exist in a cash world. Try renting a car. Banks will give you all the guff about how, managed properly (ie, paid off every month) credit cards are a very efficient way to manage spending. But they don't want you to do that because they only make money when you don't.

I recall a very prudent student telling me of the difficulties he had negotiating a smallish loan to complete the final year of college. The next week a credit card arrived in the post with a spending limit of close to 10 times his loan. Thankfully he could afford a pair of scissors. In the good old days I lost count of how many times it was suggested that I buy an apartment in Eastern Europe. Or a chunk of some 'couldn't fail' enterprise. It has taken me a long time to realise that an old car without a loan, but with obscene road tax, is far better than a new one with monthly repayments.

Which brings me to the Irish obsession with owning property. The theory we grew up with was simple. You bought a house. It increased in value so you traded up. And then again. And while the children were in school you bought an apartment for your retirement. There was no problem getting the money if you had a pulse. It was thrown at you. And then it all came unstuck.

Today you hear people talk about not wanting to rent because it is 'dead money'. There are a lot of people who will be able to tell you that it is lot less dead than a monthly repayment on a property that lost half its value in a property crash.

If I was in my 20s and thinking of having a family, I would think long and hard about renting rather than buying. Most of the credit cards would be binned. And I would read every communication from the bank with 'negative equity' written in the bathroom mirror. If we let them, they will do it to us all over again. We would let them, and the soothsayers would tell us it was all safe as houses.

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