Money and Marshmallows

Mar 01, 2021
Personal Finance

Please join me in welcoming Kathryn Dawson to the NGPF team as our newest Curriculum Designer. Kathryn shares what motivated her to join the NGPF team in this essay. 


When talking about personal finance, my mother–tenacious and resourceful–brings to mind the Stanford marshmallow experiment. The experiment promised children they would receive two marshmallows if they could refrain from eating the first for 15 minutes; it concluded children who could delay gratification were more likely to become successful later. 

In some ways, this narrative fits my mother. As the daughter of Greek immigrants with a financially chaotic upbringing, she used personal finance skills to achieve independence and ultimately to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor. But ask her, however, and she’s quick to stress that personal finance is not all about wealth; its value is providing a route to security and freedom.

As an educator, I want all students to have the financial skills that empower them and expand their opportunities. Money can mean security, freedom, and power. On the simplest level, it can allow a child to forgo a marshmallow for 15 minutes because they trust that food will be available in the future. 

The marshmallow experiment was initially lauded for demonstrating the value of self-control. However, it has largely been debunked as part of the “replication crisis” that cast doubt onto many social science findings. Upon further study, differences in children’s future outcomes were explained by family income, education level, and food stability, not merely self-control. This reversal is a stark reminder that we have to contextualize personal choices within our inequitable world. 

Money and marshmallows don’t exist in a vacuum (except as a fun classroom experiment)

Our work is incomplete if we tell a child to wait, to budget, to save, without acknowledging the injustices that go deeper than individual choices. Students will be applying their financial skills in a world with treacherous wage gaps, employment discrimination, and growing wealth inequality. 

Yes, let’s give students the tools to build financial stability. Let’s also provide the context they need to build a more equitable future. 

About the Author

Kathryn Dawson

Kathryn (she/her) is excited to join the NGPF team after 9 years of experience as a special education teacher and a tutor. She is a graduate of Cornell University with a degree in policy analysis and management and has a master's degree in education from Brooklyn College. Kathryn is looking forward to bringing her passion for accessibility and educational justice into curriculum design at NGPF. During her free time, Kathryn loves embarking on cooking projects, walking around her Seattle neighborhood with her partner and dog, or lounging in a hammock with a book.