Remember the last time you put down a box of McDonald’s french fries without eating every single one? Me neither. Small, large, supersized –- doesn’t matter. I’m eating all of those french fries in one sitting. Turns out, managing your budget and putting more money into savings isn’t much different than trying to turn down those fries. It’s hard, but it can be done.
In psychology, this over-indulgence is called the “unit bias.” When you go to McDonald’s, you’re going to finish that box of fries. You know it. They know it. Everyone knows it. Imagine that box is your bank account, and those fries are your dollars. How can you stop yourself from spending them all?
The Research: Consumption and Container Size
A study found in the Journal of Marketing Research suggests the best way is to divide and conquer: Divide your expenses; conquer your budget.
By “partitioning” your budget – breaking down your expenses into categories – you’ll have a clear picture of how much you can afford to spend after taking care of the necessities. This is a budgeting basic, but it’s interesting how much it has to do with psychology. The researchers in this study found that partitioning can help people consume less food and spend less money. To them, these things appear scientifically similar.
The Tactic: Partitioning Your Way to Success
Imagine you take all of the french fries from a supersized box and put them into 10 of those flimsy paper packages you get when you order a small. If you think you’d still eat the same number of fries, the authors of the aforementioned study have the data to suggest otherwise. Instead, you’d realize you were full and opt not to crack into a new unit. The same applies to your envelopes if you use the envelope budgeting system to budget.
With your newly partitioned budget, you’ll know exactly how much money you’ve set aside for certain investments and expenditures, like savings deposits, dinners out, and fun activities with your kids. Plus, you’ll be less likely to dip into your other financial pools. With only one, aggregate pool of money, you don’t have these restraints, and are in greater danger of overspending. Of course, you don’t have to break the actual, physical money up. Just creating a simple, itemized budget is enough for most people to find success.
The Follow-Through: Variety is the Fries of Life
Though these steps will guide you during budget management, they’re not enough: Lasting success requires persistent motivation and attention.
If having some extra spending cash isn’t enough to keep you to you budgeting, find another way to break your money up. Family vacations, college tuitions, and retirement plans can keep you motivated to save in the short, intermediate, and long term.
If you let your budget become a habit, after a while it will become mundane and you might lose interest. (Do you still get psyched about brushing your teeth?) Keep it interesting for yourself. Move money around to allow for that hobby you’ve always wanted to pick up. Take a ceramics class. Find a charity to donate to. Whatever it is, finding new ways to spend your money — or better, new things to save it for — will keep your attention focused on your budget and prevent you from overspending.
Saving money doesn’t have to be laborious, and spending it doesn’t have to be painful. If you stick to your budget while giving yourself some monthly flexibility, you can save with ease while spending contentedly. Just remember to treat your money like a bunch of small units and not one giant box of McDonald’s french fries.
How do you think spending money is like consuming food? What do you do to partition your budget? Please share in the comments below.