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  • Writer's pictureAnn J. Shubert, CFP, MBA

Three Brain Tricks to Try When Saving Isn't Easy

Updated: Aug 18, 2023

Are You Saving Enough Today to Provide for Your Future Dreams?

We’ve been told (over and over again) you should spend less than you make and save the rest. But for many of us this is difficult to achieve when the future is so far away. However the day will come when you will either want to stop working, or you’ll be forced to. Or you might want to work at something else by choice, but not out of necessity. The income you are bringing in today and spending to support yourself and possibly your family is most likely the biggest resource you have to build financial independence for your future self to enjoy

How To Save When Saving Isn't Easy

“ If you want to change how you spend your money, and how much of it you save, there are three brain tricks you can start today to take better care of Future-You.

If saving isn’t easy for you, here are some ideas that might help. Current Neuroscience tells us that our brains don’t really care about the future, and our actions aren’t driven by the potential benefits. Future you just isn’t “sexy” to your brain. So when given a choice between spending money now on something that makes us feel good, or putting it away for many years down the road our brain often chooses to spend money now.

Recommended reading: Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

But if you want to change how you spend your money, and how much of it you save, there are three brain tricks you can start today to take better care of Future-You.

Brain Trick 1: Put Savings on Autopilot

An easy way to increase your savings is to set up automated recurring savings either into a retirement plan at your work or an IRA or investment account. The trick? It is all in the timing. Set up your automatic recurring savings when you’re consciously thinking about how good it will feel to achieve financial independence. Keep your financial independence top of mind, set your automated recurring savings and then relax.

Why does this work? Because it only takes conscious attention for a short period, and then it is out of sight and out of mind. Our conscious attention is in short supply, and it runs out easily by the end of the day. Not having to actively do anything except check on the account every so often to review the investments makes it easier to succeed.

Brain Trick 2: Reward Yourself

Using rewards is another positive brain trick to implement if you have regular money behaviors you want to change. The trick? You’ll harness the power of dopamine, the wanting neurotransmitter, using rewards, to alter your behavior. First, identify one particular behavior you want to change. Write down what you will do, when or how often and then pick a reward you will receive if you’re successful. The act of writing it down keeps you focused and the act of working towards a reward can change your behavior in the long term.

For example, to reduce your spending, you might set an intention of cooking for yourself instead of eating out a certain number of times a week, and reward yourself with a low-cost guilty pleasure, like binging a favorite show on the weekend.

Or, if you want to increase how much you’re saving for a down payment on a vacation home, you might set an intention of saving a certain amount a month with a reward of a nice experience like a dinner out or a massage.

Here’s what this would like when written down:

  • Goal: Save $20,000 towards the purchase a vacation home

  • When/how: Auto transfer $500 per month to savings account

  • Rewards:

    • Each $2,500 of savings, get a massage at XYZ spa.

    • When savings has reached $20,000, dinner at XYZ restaurant.

Recommended Reading: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

You must be specific about the intention or goal and be sure it’s something you will do rather than something you will not do. Identify the reward you will get ahead of time, which should be something you really want but you don’t get otherwise. And then record your progress and experience earning your reward. As your behavior changes because of wanting the reward, whatever it is, your brain notices that you’re doing something different. And little by little that becomes “what you do,” and a new habit is formed.

Brain Trick 3: Specify Your Outcome

One more trick that can help with training your brain to change your savings behaviors is to get very specific and clear about the future desired outcome you want to fund with those savings.

What kind of life does Future-You get to live if you save more now?

If you are saving to buy a vacation home, think about how lovely it will feel to be able to get away to your own special place. Whether it is a mountain cabin or lake side bungalow, keep yourself excited about the goal.

If it’s about financial independence and not having to work, imagine in detail what you would do with your time if you didn’t work. Maybe it’s volunteering in your community, maybe it’s traveling the world. Make it “sexy,” by making it real and exciting to your brain. Create something positive to plan for Future-You, rather than something you’re avoiding or getting away from.

Try just one of the brain tricks above to start saving for Future-You and give yourself some grace and space to adjust.


The content of this website is for information only, everyone’s situation is different. If you have personal financial concerns, please schedule a 30 minute free, no obligation call with Ann here.

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