How to Trick Yourself into Saving More

Take the pain out of spending less with these mental hacks

Andrew Willis 25 February, 2021 | 4:38AM
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Some of the best surprises are simply a result of things being forgotten. You know that feeling you get when you chance upon unexpected cash in an old pair of pants or an old jacket? Well, you can get that excitement regularly by making a few changes in your life that build ‘hidden’ nest eggs and make saving easier, starting with a mental ‘bypass’ for some of your money.

Go Autopilot
“The best way to trick yourself into saving is automation. In other words, setting it up so that money gets transferred into your savings account every time you get a paycheck,” says Samantha Lamas, Behavioural Researcher at Morningstar. “The next step would be implementing a setting where the amount you’re saving automatically increases after a certain date or whenever you get a pay raise. Automation is so effective because it doesn’t require us to think about saving at all, it’s all done out of sight, out of mind.” 

Automating your savings could be as simple as setting a regular automatic withdrawal with your bank a day or two after your salary typically gets deposited. You can also give the computers a little more control by involving them on the spending side and budgeting side as well.

Apps like Moka 360 and Wealthsimple Invest can automatically round up your purchases to the nearest dollar and invest the savings, and they can help with your financial planning.

Easy Habits Die Hard
While it’s easy to hand off some of the fiscal responsibilities to robots, tricking your mind by using simple and incremental rules can be a shortcut to healthier financial behaviours. 

Lamas suggests making a habit out of saving. “That can start by deciding on a simple saving rule of thumb that fits into your personal life. There are plenty of rules out there, but it’s important to find one that you can stick to and helps you get closer to your financial goals. Our recent research begins to sift through the multitude of rules that exist.”

Rules of thumb are great because they’re so simple. “The easier it was for a person to make these decisions, the more financially well-off they were,” Lamas found in her research. Unsurprisingly, Lamas found that rules like “save at least 10-30% of your income in a month” correlated with greater financial well-being. But consistency is key – and that’s where you need to disguise it with the attributes of a habit.

Find Your Focus
Once you find a rule that fits, start the process of building it into a habit, says Lamas. “First, find your cue. That can be a day (like every Monday I have to do X), or the start of the month, or whenever you receive your paycheck. It just has to be something that is dependable and that you will remember. This ‘cue’ will be your trigger or reminder to follow your rule. Once you have that process in place, keep it up! Repeating a rule is key to making it into a habit. Also, try to include a few rewards or incentives for following your rule. These rewards should be something simple and low-cost, like a fancy cup of coffee or an hour reading a guilty-pleasure novel." 

Tricks Change with Time
Over time, the rewards you give yourself will need to be updated to your tastes, and you may need new tricks and rules of thumb when your financial situation changes - especially on the psychological front when your salary increases. “Money turns up the volume on everything,” says Sarah Newcomb, Ph.D, behavioural economist at Morningstar. “Suddenly you find yourself with a paycheck that’s bigger than you’ve ever had before, and you don’t quite know what to do. One of the biggest things to recognize is that you’re now going to have a lot more ways to either do great things or get yourself in trouble.” 

Don’t forget to avoid spells being cast your way that affect the spending side of the saving equation. Newcomb illustrates one such mental trap that appears in the transition from the finances of new grad to new hire. “If all your extra money and all your extra time during college was spent in certain ways, then just having a new job isn’t necessarily going to change the way that you’re spending money. It’s just going to give you more opportunity to spend more in the same old ways.”

A rule of thumb here might be to indirectly trick yourself into saving more by re-evaluating what you actually ‘need’ to spend by searching within. “People don’t go out to eat dinner because they need food,” says Newcomb, they do it because they want to connect with friends or experience something novel. They’re meeting needs for social connections, for convenience.” In this way, you can evaluate whether needs can be satisfied in other, less expensive ways.

Lastly, as you go about tricking yourself to save more, be sure to keep an eye on your progress so that you can keep your eye on the prize, Lamas adds. “Knowing how far we’ve come helps us stay motivated as well as keeps us honest!”

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About Author

Andrew Willis

Andrew Willis  is Senior Editor at Morningstar Canada. He previously produced content for Fidelity Investments and finance industry events for Euromoney Institutional Investor and has written in the past for Thomson Reuters and CNN. Follow him on Twitter @Andrew_M_Willis.

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