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Investing basics: Mental hacks to help you save money

Andrew Willis  |  26 Feb 2021Text size  Decrease  Increase  |  
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What better feeling is there than finding unexpected cash in an old jeans' pocket?

Some of the best surprises are simply a result of things being forgotten.

You can get that excitement regularly by making a few changes in your life that build "hidden" nest eggs and make saving easier so you can reach your financial goals. You just need to start with a mental bypass for some of your money.

Go autopilot

The best way to trick yourself into saving is automation. In other words, set it up so that money gets transferred into your savings account every time you get paid. Samantha Lamas, behavioural researcher at Morningstar, says: “The next step would be to implement a setting where the amount you’re saving automatically increases after a certain date or whenever you get a pay raise. Automation is so effective because it doesn’t require us to think about saving at all, it’s all done out of sight, out of mind.” 

Automating your savings could be as simple as setting a regular direct debit with your bank a day or two after your salary typically gets deposited. You can also give the computers a little more control by involving them on the spending and budgeting fronts as well. Apps like Raiz can automatically round up your purchases to the nearest dollar and invest the savings, while PocketBook can help with budgeting and and planning.

Easy habits die hard

While it’s easy to hand off some of your fiscal responsibilities to robots, tricking your mind by using simple and incremental rules can be a shortcut to healthier financial behaviours. 

Lamas suggests making a habit out of saving: “That can start by deciding on a simple saving rule of thumb that fits into your personal life. There are plenty of rules out there, but it’s important to find one that you can stick to and helps you get closer to your financial goals." Our recent research begins to sift through the multitude of rules that exist.

Rules of thumb are great because they’re so simple. “The easier it was for a person to make these decisions, the more financially well-off they were,” Lamas found in her research. Unsurprisingly, Lamas found that rules like “save at least 10-30 per cent of your income in a month” correlated with greater financial well-being. But consistency is key – and that’s where you need to disguise it with the attributes of a habit.

Find Your focus

Once you find a rule that fits, start the process of building it into a habit, says Lamas. “First, find your cue. That can be a day (like every Monday I have to do X), or the start of the month, or whenever you get get paid. It just has to be something that is dependable and that you will remember."

This "cue" will be your trigger or reminder to follow your rule. Once you have that process in place, all you need to do is keep it up. Repeating a rule is the key to making it into a habit. Try to include a few rewards or incentives for following your rule to help. These rewards should be something simple and low-cost, like ordering a fancy drink or an hour watching a guilty-pleasure show.

Over time, the rewards you give yourself will need to be updated to your tastes, and you may need new tricks and rules of thumb when your financial situation changes - especially when your salary increases. “Money turns up the volume on everything,” says Sarah Newcomb, Ph.D, behavioural economist at Morningstar. “Suddenly you find yourself with a pay packet that’s bigger than you’ve ever had before, and you don’t quite know what to do. One of the biggest things to recognise is that you’re now going to have a lot more ways to either do great things or get yourself in trouble.” 

Tricks change with time

Avoid spells being cast your way that affect the spending side of the saving equation. Newcomb illustrates one such mental trap that appears in the transition from the finances of new graduate to new hire: “If all your extra money and all your extra time during university was spent in certain ways, then just having a new job isn’t necessarily going to change the way that you’re spending money. It’s just going to give you more opportunity to spend more in the same old ways.”

A rule of thumb here might be to indirectly trick yourself into saving more by re-evaluating what you actually "need" to spend. “People don’t go out to eat dinner because they need food,” says Newcomb, "They do it because they want to connect with friends or experience something novel. They’re meeting needs for social connections, for convenience.” In this way, you can evaluate whether needs can be satisfied in other, less expensive ways.

Lastly, as you go about tricking yourself to save more, be sure to keep an eye on your progress so that you can keep your eye on the prize, Lamas adds. “Knowing how far we’ve come helps us stay motivated - as well as keeping us honest!”

is Content Editor for Morningstar Canada

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