Can you train your brain to save more money?

One powerful motivator is to view a digitally altered image of what you look like in old age, study finds

A simple psychological shift can help motivate you to start saving. Getty Images
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If there is one silver lining to come out of the Covid-19 pandemic, it has to be society’s deeper awareness of the importance of saving and having a safety net — not only for a rainy day, but also for those important financial milestones in our lives.

Many of us now know that securing our financial futures is paramount, whether it is building that all-important emergency fund, paying off high-interest debt, saving for retirement, investing, putting money aside for our children’s education or even a down payment for a home.

But getting started on that savings journey is much easier said than done, more so when there are bills to pay, debt payments to make and battling that all-too familiar temptation of impulse purchases.

Giving up that instant gratification — such as wasting money on things we do not need or ordering takeaway every night — is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome when it comes to committing to a budgeting and savings plan.

But it seems that our brains also have something to do with it. In 2018, a group of neuroscientists from Cornell University in the US conducted a study that explored whether our brains are hard-wired to earn more money rather than save it.

For example, what do we do when we receive a pay rise — spend it or save it?

According to the study, we are more likely to spend that pay rise and continue trying to earn more money in the short term rather than taking advantage of compounding interest by investing it for the long term.

In other words, we live for the present rather than the future.

“There’s this implicit blame that people aren’t working hard enough and that the lack of savings is a reflection of work ethic,” Adam Anderson, associate professor at Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology and co-author of the report, told CNBC in an interview in 2018.

“But the data suggest that while people work a lot and work hard, saving is a problem.”

That problem we have with saving is reflected in numerous global studies and surveys.

Last October, a survey of more than 2,300 people by financial services company Bankrate, found that about 55 per cent of US adults felt their retirement savings were not where they need to be, with nearly 35 per cent saying they were “significantly behind” and another 20 per cent saying they were “somewhat behind” their goals.

Meanwhile, a 2020 survey by global consulting company Mercer found that almost half of all UAE residents often delayed preparing for their retirement until they had reached their late 40s and 50s.

The Mercer study also found that 45 per cent of foreign employees in the UAE either had no means of maintaining a decent standard of living in their retirement, or plan to work beyond retirement age to derive enough income for their later years.

There is no magic formula when it comes to saving — yes, smart money skills do go a long way to help people set financial goals and create a budget to manage their savings, debt repayments and daily expenses.

But for those who struggle to save regardless of the level of their financial literacy knowledge, the good news is that you can retrain your brain to embrace a savings mindset.

While it takes a lot of hard work and discipline — especially in the beginning — there are ways you can turn it into a daily habit, according to financial experts.

The first step is to set up a realistic budget based on your salary and figure out your needs and wants — and there are plenty of budgeting apps out there to help you do this.

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One way is to apply the 50:30:20 rule to your finances.

This means that 50 per cent of your monthly income goes towards necessities (such as rent, groceries and utilities), 30 per cent for wants (those little luxuries in life) and the remainder for paying off debt and savings.

Once you’ve figured out your budget, this is where you can become creative in how you plan to save and invest for the future.

Creating visual aids is an interactive way to track your savings progress — it could be a chart or picture that you update every month with coloured pens.

If you don’t want to create one yourself, you could try budget-friendly digital printables that you can purchase from online stores such as Etsy.

You could also try envisioning your future financial goals — do you want to buy a house or retire early, for instance?

Create a mood board that reflects your goals — it is a great way to keep you motivated and on track with what you want to achieve financially.

Perhaps one of the most powerful motivators — or shock? — to save is to look into the future.

One study by Stanford University found that people who can view digitally altered images of their future selves — what they look like in old age — are more likely to save for retirement.

“In all cases, those who interacted with their virtual future selves exhibited an increased tendency to accept later monetary rewards over immediate ones,” the authors of the study said.

You can check out your future self on age progression apps such as FaceLab, FaceApp and Oldify — and, hopefully, this acts as a major motivator to financially empower yourself and start saving for the future.

Updated: March 13, 2023, 3:38 AM