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A Commitment to Our Future

I occasionally enjoy a good Looney Tunes cartoon with my boys, and recently saw one where Sylvester the pussycat was trying to gain some willpower over his desire to eat Tweety Bird. Joining B.A. (Birds Anonymous) was a public commitment to stop being a "bad ol' puddy tat", and an important part of his recovery. However, his will was weak (after all he is a pussy cat) and he was bombarded with TV and radio commercials about succulently prepared mouth-watering birds. He then took his commitment a step further and chained himself to the radiator. This is much like what Odysseus did when he tied himself to the mast so that he could listen to the enchanting song of the Sirens without sailing into the rocky coast of their island.


What do Sylvester and Odysseus have to do with retirement planning? They demonstrate the importance of using a "commitment device" to stick to their well-conceived plans. This article has been inspired by the writings of behavioral economists, including Richard Thaler (via the book Nudge) and Daniel Goldstein.

A commitment device is one of the ways we can get our "current selves" to keep a commitment that we make to ourselves when we are focused upon what we really want for the good of the long-term (to our "future selves"). This technique helps prevent us from doing something we will regret when we are in the heat of the moment.

Living within our means is a classic (yet unequal) battle between the current self and our future self—in other words, between immediate gratification and delayed gratification. The current self doesn't want to restrain spending; he wants the immediate gratification that comes with the enjoyment of travel and buying new "stuff". Yet the future self wants the current self to rein in the spending and instead save so that he can retire in comfort.

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