The Power of Positive Thinking: How to Train Your Brain to Be Happier About Saving

The Power of Positive Thinking: How to Train Your Brain to Be Happier About Saving

Last week I skipped a group lunch with my girlfriends to save $50. But while it was good for my budget, it certainly wasn’t fun to turn down the invite.

I love trying new restaurants, and taking the occasional sanity break from raising two young sons. I’m also trying to save money—$50 a month, to be exact—so I can put $600 toward Christmas gifts this year. And the only way for me to do this is to cap extracurricular excursions.

I know it will feel good to see presents under the tree that didn’t bust my budget come December—but that doesn’t make it any easier to stop swiping my debit card now.

At least I’m not alone.

In a recent Gallup personal finance survey, the gap between those who say they enjoy saving versus spending is the widest it’s been since 2001: 62% of consumers report they enjoy saving money, while only 34% relish spending it.

That’s all well and good, except that the percentage of people spending more has actually gone up recently. In 2010, 17% of people reported spending more than they had in recent months—in 2014, that number was 30%.

So if we enjoy saving money, why can't we do more of it? The answer, in part, could be how you’re hardwired. Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t train your brain to help make saving feel a whole lot better.

RELATED: The Science of Spending: What Really Makes Us Happy?

Saving vs. Spending: Comparing the Pleasure Principles

We’ve probably all felt the excitement from buying something new, whether it’s the latest iPhone or a car. The rush from spending, while short-lived, is undeniable. Saving, on the other hand, doesn’t usually produce quite the same adrenaline rush.

“It’s hard to save because we don’t have anything tangible to show for our effort,” says David Blaylock, CFP® with LearnVest Planning Services. “Think about how you felt right when you made a major purchase—probably pretty good, right? But when the endorphins wear off, you have to spend again to get that same feeling.” By comparison, when it comes to saving, “numbers on a sheet of paper don’t produce the same feeling.”

What makes it even harder is that your DNA actually plays a part in how much of an impulsive spender you turn out to be. According to David Sack, a psychologist who specializes in addictive behaviors, studies suggest about 30% of someone’s impulsivity may be attributed to genetics.

“Brain-imaging studies show differences in the reward regions of the brain in impulsive individuals," Sack says. "For example, impulsive people show less response when presented with a future reward than less-impulsive people."

Unsurprisingly, says Sacks, impulsivity goes hand-in-hand with addiction issues, such as compulsive shopping, eating, gambling, and drug and alcohol abuse. "For some, a future reward simply can’t compete with the lure of an instant payoff,” he adds. There’s even a term for this phenomenon: delay discounting, or the inability to forgo a smaller, immediate reward even when a bigger one is promised at a later date.

Nurture can, however, fight nature if you learn how to take on a more long-term perspective. “When you save money, the happiness curve goes up as you do it,” Blaylock says. “The happiest day is not when you put $50 in the savings account—it’s in a year when you see what that $50 a month does.”

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And unlike the fleeting rush you get from an impulse purchase, Blaylock adds, “saving is more about the intangibles—feeling freedom, feeling secure and feeling like we’re making progress on a goal.”

Similar sentiments rang true with respondents to a recent Ameriprise study: Three in five surveyed said that making financial trade-offs in order to save more made them feel responsible. More than a third cited other emotional outcomes, like feeling “realistic,” “adult-like” and “comfortable.”

And yet another study in the Journal of Consumer Research comparing the mind-sets of savers and spenders found that “the highly frugal spend conservatively because they enjoy saving, not because the prospect of spending pains them.”

Translation: Saving can feel good for savings’ sake.

4 Ways You Can Help Make Saving Feel Good

So what’s the key to finding happiness in the act of stashing away your cash? Focusing on the future reward.

Admittedly, that doesn’t come easily for everyone. But you can train yourself to shift your mind-set so that putting money toward your future retirement can make you feel just as good—if not better—than splurging on a designer suit today.

Here are four ways to make your future goals top of mind, so that saving can become a more rewarding experience.

RELATED: 7 Toxic Money Thoughts to Banish Today

1. Remind yourself that you’re still spending that money—just not right this second. Individuals who focus more intently on the present tend to take more risks and act more impulsively, Sack says. But “altering your time perspective to what researchers call a ‘future-minded state’ can increase your willingness to delay gratification.”

Sack offers this example: “When you're saving to buy your first home, rather than think of your penny-pinching as missed opportunities to eat out, think of it as buying an opportunity to have shelter, put down roots and be part of a community.”

And consider it a sign of progress when that feeling starts to come to you more naturally. “Far from giving up, delayed gratification is a mature recognition that some things are worth working toward,” he adds.

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2. Boost your memory. There are two main types of memory: retrospective memory, which is recalling events of your past; and prospective memory, which involves remembering to perform an action in the future, such as taking medication at a certain time. Both can work in tandem to help you save better.

Journaling, for instance, is one technique Sack has used with clients in addiction treatment to help them imagine what recovery looks like. It serves as a reminder that a more positive state of their life once existed—and can be achieved once again.

A similar technique can be used in relation to money. "Simply recalling a time when an item was successfully saved for, and the happiness experienced when the item was purchased, can be a spur to repeat the action," Sack says. "Writing also seems to have a special ability to cement memory, so I would encourage jotting down any memories of times when saving worked to a person’s advantage."

In other words, your retrospective memory can help boost your prospective memory, making you a more future-minded person. “Prospective memory is the ability to imagine ourselves in a future state, and cultivating an image of what might be makes it more likely we’ll work toward getting there,” Sack says.

Another reason having a good prospective memory helps? It can be easier to remind yourself to boost your savings periodically—like upping retirement contributions by 1% every six months. Try tying cues to that action to help you remember it better: Perhaps there is a holiday or birthday that you could use as a memory trigger to tell you it's time to review your savings plan.

RELATED: 6 Signs You May Need to Revisit Your Retirement Plan 

3. Exercise that imagination. Remember when you were a child and made up elaborate stories about what you’d do when you were all grown-up? Well, try to rekindle that creative energy.

According to Sack, the more intensely you can imagine yourself enjoying a future reward, the more willing you are to put in the time needed to acquire it. So if you’re saving to buy a convertible, imagine yourself driving around town in it with the wind in your hair a year from now, he suggests.

The act of visualizing your savings can also be accomplished through a vision board—a collection of photos, words or drawings that remind you of what you’re actually saving for. Keep this in a place where it can serve as a constant reminder of your future goals, whether that’s a physical bulletin board by your desk or the background photo on your computer.

4. Watch your numbers grow. Think of this as another twist on the visualization technique: Keep regular tabs on your progress. You can monitor how much you’re saving in the Priority Goals tab of your LearnVest.com account. From there, you can enjoy the satisfaction of seeing how much you’re moving the needle every month.

In fact, goal tracking and a vision board can work hand-in-hand as a double-whammy motivational tool. When clients want to increase their goal contributions, Blaylock will often help them find expenses they are willing to pare back on in order to divert the cost savings to a financial goal. Once they make a commitment, say, to trim their eating out costs by $50 a month, they can watch their dollar amount increase online but also have the vision board to remind them of what that extra $50 is going toward.

“The big obstacle [to saving] is often lack of vision,” Blaylock says. But once you shift your mind-set to think about what’s waiting for you down the pike, “the feeling [you get from saving] is the gift that keeps on giving.”

RELATED: The One-Number Strategy: A New Approach to Budgeting

LearnVest Planning Services is a registered investment adviser and subsidiary of LearnVest, Inc. that provides financial plans for its clients. Information shown is for illustrative purposes only and is not intended as investment, legal or tax planning advice. Please consult a financial adviser, attorney or tax specialist for advice specific to your financial situation. Unless specifically identified as such, the people interviewed in this piece are neither clients, employees nor affiliates of LearnVest Planning Services, and the views expressed are their own. LearnVest Planning Services and any third parties listed in this message are separate and unaffiliated and are not responsible for each other’s products, services or policies.

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