Psych Yourself Rich
Putting money aside seems pretty straightforward. But, seeing as the average personal-savings rate is just 5.7 percent (compared to 11 percent two decades ago), it’s definitely easier said than done. “We like to think of ourselves as rational when it comes to finances, but our decisions are shaped by psychological and emotional triggers,” says financial behaviorist Jacquette M. Timmons, author of “Financial Intimacy.”
Not only are many of these cognitive workings subconscious — so we aren’t aware of the profound impact they may have — but sometimes they’re completely counterintuitive. Certain money moves that appear savvy, for example having several different savings goals or focusing on specific ways you’ll cut back, actually end up backfiring and having the opposite effect of driving you to spend more.
We sorted through the expansive body of research out there devoted to the science of saving and discovered some pretty astonishing findings about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to beefing up your bank account. Here’s the scoop.
Focus on Why You Want to Save — Not Just How
If you want to sock away more cash, coming up with specific ways to accomplish your goal sounds like a smart idea, right? But a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research counteracts that notion. It found that people who honed in on the reasons why they wanted to put aside money (so you’ll be able to go on that safari you’ve always dreamed of, afford to buy your own home or retire comfortably) saved more than participants who concentrated on developing specific techniques for how they’d cut back — say, by going shopping less often.
It turns out those who strategized concrete techniques effectively had blinders on that hindered them from making smart decisions that fell outside of their plans. So, if a money-saving opportunity arose that the person hadn’t considered (choosing a cheaper meal at a restaurant or opting for public transportation to save on gas), they’d be less apt to take advantage of it. “Planning is more effective when people think abstractly, keep an open mind and remind themselves of why they want to achieve a goal,” explained the study’s authors.
Harness Your Power
The more powerful you feel before making a financial decision, the more money you’ll stash, according to research from Stanford University. Before sitting down with your financial advisor or heading on a shopping trip, think back to a time in your life when you felt on top of the world. Maybe you successfully asked for a raise, scored a promotion or even spoke up about an issue important to you. “People who feel powerful use saving money as a means to maintain their current state of power,” concluded the study authors.
On an everyday basis, carrying yourself in a way that exudes confidence will help hold you back from impulse splurging on everything from a $500 to-die-for DVF wrap to $50 biodynamic, wild-crafted dish detergent made from sustainably raised guar gum. Use broad gestures when speaking, lean forward slightly with your weight on the balls of your feet and be the first one to reach out for a handshake when you meet someone new to exude your power.
Put It In Writing
Here’s one tiny tweak that can make a huge difference in whether or not you achieve savings success: Rather than just thinking about your savings goals, jot them down. Research from Gail Matthews, PhD, of Dominican University found that people who wrote down their goals were significantly more successful at achieving them than those who simply pondered them. Sixty-one percent of the “writers” accomplished their objectives, compared to only 43 percent of the “thinkers.”
Then, track your progress by creating a spreadsheet or using a program like Mint Goals. Because you never actually see or touch cash you’ve invested, it can often feel abstract, almost as though it’s play money. “Watching your savings creep up will send your brain a powerful message that your actions are paying off in real time,” says Timmons. “This positive feedback will fortify your drive to save.”
Make Saving Pleasurable (Seriously!)
Cutting back, spending less, being frugal…yeah, doesn’t sound like a heck of a lot of fun, does it? “We associate saving money with feelings of deprivation, with having to pass up things that we love,” explains Timmons. “And that doesn’t give us much impetus to follow through.”
So, try to make the blah process as enjoyable as possible and you’ll be galvanized to stash more cash. Begin by creating a monthly ritual for evaluating your savings that you might actually look forward to. Slip into cozy slippers, light a few candles and pour yourself a cup of tea for example. While we’re at it, try to go through your investments at the same time and place — say, the last Sunday of the month at your kitchen table — rather than doing it on the fly.
A study published in Psychological Science found that developing regular money-saving habits helped people bank more of their disposable income. “According to our research, any effort to routinize the process could potentially increase the amount of savings,” says study author Uptal Dholakia, PhD, professor of at Rice University.
Next, reward yourself each time you hit a milestone. “People tend to focus on how far away they are from their goal,” says Timmons. “But it’s also important to give yourself credit for what you’ve accomplished.” Celebrate your successes — reaching the $10,000 mark in your IRA, getting to the halfway point in your mortgage assets — by indulging in a treat. Uh, not a shopping spree at Barney’s (sorry!), but maybe a pedicure, movie night with your friends or a bottle of prosecco at dinner. That cognitive reinforcement makes you more likely to stick with your saving objectives.
Plan a Money Date
It’s temptingly easy to put off your savings goals when you only have yourself to answer to. But Matthews’ research shows that people are much more likely to follow through if there’s someone else holding them accountable: A whopping 76 percent of study participants who submitted weekly progress reports to a supportive friend were successful.
So, ask a close friend or your significant other to help you stay in line — whether you actually meetup to discuss your financial situation or just send a text at the end of the week or month reporting on your savings status. “I meet with a couple of friends and a financial coach once a month,” says Timmons. “We each explain what our 30-day savings plans are and debrief on whether or not we reached our last goal. There’s no judgment, but knowing that I’ll have to recount any poor financial decisions I made gives me an extra push to save more.” It also gives you a moment of reflection to think about what worked, what didn’t and what you’d do differently next time.
Narrow Your Focus
Be it chocolate cake, accessories or even savings goals, you can have too much of a good thing. In a University of Toronto study, individuals who had just one savings objective were better at socking away money than people who had multiple aims. “If you have only one goal, it puts you in an action-oriented mindset and helps you save more,” explained study co author Min Zhao, PhD, assistant professor of marketing. “Too much thinking about which goal is more important keeps people from acting.” Okay…but what if there are a number of things you want to save for (a new car, an emergency fund, your kid’s college education)? Try to umbrella them under an all-encompassing target, like supporting your family.