Lose the "Microwave" Mentality

Instant money, like instant food, turns out to have some distasteful characteristics.

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Microwave ovens have been heating leftovers and popping popcorn for a generation, a daily bit of wizardry that makes waiting for anything seem obsolete. And the microwave mentality has spread far beyond the kitchen.

Consumers have gotten used to buying almost anything they want in seconds over the Internet. Need a loan? Just click here. Bad credit? One toll-free call can fix that. And never mind saving for a home—that takes too long. Just sign beneath the fine print, and you're in the door.

But instant money, like instant food, turns out to have some distasteful characteristics. So a financial version of the slow-food movement is sprouting. Instead of no-money-down or open-ended credit, old-fashioned layaway programs have emerged at retailers like Kmart, Sears, and T. J. Maxx. GMAC and other car lenders have tripled down-payment requirements and stopped lending to borrowers with weak credit. And to qualify for a mortgage, you'll probably have to save $50,000 or $75,000 first as a down payment.

Many people don't like the slow-spend movement. But they should. Easy money fuels impulse buying, along with foolish neighborly competition over who has the newest appliances or the most chrome in the driveway. It also drives down saving and leaves consumers vulnerable when a shock—which wasn't supposed to happen!—happens.

In the new economic order, slow spenders—people who wait to buy and pay as they go—will be the ones to envy. They won't have the latest iPhone or the most stuff. But they'll have the best credit, actual savings, and stable finances—the new gateways to financial freedom. Slow spenders will be the ones able to get a loan to snap up property at a bargain. They'll have a rainy-day fund and some spare cash for their kids' college tuition. The microwave might still pop the popcorn, but gratification will be a lot less instant elsewhere. And it might even taste better that way.