One Secret That Could Help You Save a Lot of Money—and Why We Get Sidetracked

Colleen Oakley

achieve goalTrying to buy a house? Save for retirement? Finally pay off your student loans?

Then you know that saving thousands of dollars doesn’t happen overnight.

And you also know that your good intentions (“This year I’ll save $20 a week!”) can easily get pushed to the side when life gets in the way—and before you know it, you’ve gotten off track from your savings goals … again.

But a study suggests it’s not really those shiny new boots or car trouble that stands between you and progress. The problem is time. Or, more specifically, your brain’s perception of time.

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania found that often, the longer you pursue a goal, the farther away it seems, which can lead you to get sidetracked or give up—even if you’re close to reaching your goal.

The key factor? “Uncertainty about when the end goal is going to arrive,” says Dr. Joseph Kable, a neuroscientist and co-author of the study. A great example is when you call a company and you’re put on hold. It could be that someone will pick up in 30 seconds or 10 minutes, but you don’t know.

After you’ve been on hold for two minutes, you might conclude that you have longer to wait than you initially thought—that the end goal is farther away—and you’re more likely to say “forget it” and hang up.

RELATED: Are You Sabotaging Your Short-Term Money Goals?

“It’s counterintuitive,” says Kable, “but the longer you’ve been waiting, the longer time remaining you think you have. If that’s how your [brain] perceives the situation, it makes sense to give up, even if you’ve already invested a lot of time.”

Translation: If getting to your goal takes too long—in your perception—you’re more likely to take that money you should be saving and buy the shiny new boots. But luckily, there’s a simple fix that can help make saving a big chunk of money a much easier endeavor.