Whether you’re saving money for an emergency fund, a special vacation, or for your retirement, you know that it can be difficult. While the amount of money you’re able to save is restricted by factors such as your income, your cost of living, your daily expenses, your ability to save is restricted by something much more powerful, and much more subtle: your brain.
Our ability to save money is largely determined by our ability to delay gratification, which comes easier to some than others. In a well known study from the 70s – the Stanford marshmallow experiment – researchers sat children at a table on which lay a lone marshmallow. The children were invited to eat the marshmallow, but were promised a second when the researcher returned, given they didn’t eat the first one. You can imagine how difficult it is for kids to resist eating the marshmallow. (Or, you can see for yourself.)
Our ability to delay gratification is associated with two brain areas: 1) the prefrontal cortex, responsible for rational, thoughtful, and more complex thinking; and 2) the inferior frontal gyrus, responsible for inhibiting impulsive behavior.
Beyond controlling impulsive purchases, like a stick of gum or candy bar, saving money requires conscious effort and thought. It has been demonstrated that working memory plays a role in our ability to save, as it allows us to hold future projections of ourselves in consciousness while considering the present. This is useful – necessary, even – as one of the biggest tricks to saving money is learning to enjoy future rewards – being debt free, a family vacation, retiring comfortably – as much as a reward right now.
Changing how you perceive those rewards isn’t necessarily easy, but it can be done. Instead of thinking about the “savings” aspect, the sum of money stowed away, consider the eventual reward: watching your children graduate from college, a vacation on a beach, retiring with a loved one. Thinking about the reward will force you to think of the good to come – the possibly better to come – if you ride out the storm of your impulses.
Oxytocin – The Love Hormone
Interestingly enough, oxytocin, often referred to as the “love hormone” plays a pivotal role in our ability to delay gratification, and therefore save money. While oxytocin’s nickname derives from its involvement in pair bonding, maternal behaviors, and other reproductive behaviors, it also plays a role in anxiety.
Paul Zak, a neuroeconomist from Claremont Graduate University, believes that oxytocin’s role in delaying gratification is a social one. “People who are happier and have greater social support save more,” he says. “Oxytocin reduces anxiety, so we can make decisions that are better for us.”
Either increasing your levels of oxytocin through social interaction, or reducing your anxiety through other means, is essential for your saving. If you’re clouded by anxiety, you may be more likely to act irrationally and impulsively, and therefore less likely to save. Talking to someone about your finances may be an easy way to dump some anxiety and create some oxytocin at the same time.
First, always approach your finances and financial decisions with a cool, level head. If you feel yourself getting worried or anxious, step away for a moment until you can apply rational focus and attention. Once you’re thinking clearly, you’ll find it’s easier to envision future scenarios and future rewards. Making a reward tomorrow, in ten years, or fifty years as tangible and palpable as a reward today will put you on the savings track in no time.