You’re walking down the street, stop to tie your shoes, and what do you know — a pretty $20 bill is just lying there, looking for a new wallet to call home.
What do you do? Spend it right away? Save it for a rainy day? Chances are, you probably want to be smart and stash it — but won’t actually do it.
Americans continue to enjoy saving their money rather than spending it, according to a Gallop poll looking at the economy and personal finance. While the poll credits the “enjoyment” of saving over spending, it doesn’t account for actual behavior.
For many Americans, saving money is one of the toughest obstacles to conquer. How do we begin? And why is it so hard?
A Mental Workout
Saving is a mental mind game, and like dieting or thinking about a new workout plan, getting started is the hardest part. One common problem associated with saving is that without a goal, saving seems fruitless. With a tangible product in mind, saving can become exciting with each deposit and transfer that gets you closer to your savings goal.
If you’re planning a trip to Hawaii for example, you can picture yourself on the beach each time you drop a penny in the bank — making saving for it just as exciting as the trip itself. With a goal in mind, the hardest part of saving money is over: You know what you want and you know what you need to do to get it.
Where’d My Money Go?
Yet when it actually comes to putting those dollars away, however, we stumble, make excuses, and find other ways to spend the cash we should be saving. Those excuses are often immediate expenses like rent, food and bills, which prevent us from seeing the larger picture.
This is called the psychology of scarcity, where our brains only register present needs rather than future ones, like emergencies, college and retirement. This blind spot causes a sense of financial stability in the present but really undermines our saving for the future.
A study by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research showed that less than 20 percent of high school students saved for their future education from 1981-2011.
By saving those greenbacks, you’ll eliminate a potentially costly scenario. All that’s needed is a little self-control and time to reap the benefits of saving your cash.
Hold On to Your Marshmallows
Stanford professor Walter Mischel conducted an experiment with children in 1972 to test their ability to delay gratification through self-control. He offered them a marshmallow and told them that if they could wait and not eat the marshmallow, they could have a second marshmallow when he returned to the room. If they ate the first one before he came back, they wouldn’t get a second marshmallow.
Some kids immediately ate the first gooey treat of goodness; others managed to wait until Mischel returned and received two marshmallows. The study followed the participants later into their lives and revealed that the kids who held out were healthier, scored better grades and were more successful in the psychological measures the researchers conducted.
In other words? Those participants experienced the sweet rewards of delayed gratification.
Why should we care about marshmallows? Applying the same process to how we handle our finances will ultimately lead to larger monetary rewards — although not right away.
As we continue to save, the process of self-control becomes easier and our brains begin to associate saving with the positive emotions of eventual attainment rather than the negativity from suppressing that pesky spending itch.