The Psychological Blocks to Getting Started with Savings
Updated: May 24, 2018
Last week, the internet exploded in that way the internet does, when a reporter at Marketwatch tweeted an article with the headline “By 35, you should have twice your salary saved, according to retirement experts.”
Cue righteous indignation. And the onslaught of memes, many of which were hysterical. Many of you eventually saw something beginning with the words “By the age of 35, you should…”
I’m not here to debate the math, because that has been done time and again. What interested me more were the more morbid responses, which included:
“My retirement plan is a 12 gauge”
“I've done the math, and I can retire about 10 years after I die, if nothing else happens.”
“Moving to Switzerland, where it’s legal to have someone off me.”
It got dark. Fast. And yes, there are millions of people for whom that goal is unrealistic given stagnant wages over the last couple decades, student loan burdens, etc. All personal finance articles should just have an assumed disclaimer that they don’t apply for a whole swath of Americans. That’s another (important) issue but not the audience for the piece. There are also millions of people who do have the means to have met that goal (err, at least to not consider it completely outside the realm of possibility), but their money has gone elsewhere instead.
So, why is it so incredibly difficult to put aside money now for ourselves later?
It’s because our brains literally think of our future selves as a different person.
Researchers have monitored the brain activity of participants in a study. The areas of the brain that light up when asked to think about your future self are the same areas of the brain that light up when thinking about strangers. And areas of the brain that are aroused when asked questions about yourself currently go dark when asked to think about yourself 20 or 30 years in the future. Variants on this research have found the same thing over and over: most people just don’t see their future selves as well, THEM.
This is extraordinarily difficult to wrap your head around if you look forward, but makes a ton of sense when you look backwards. What did you care about deeply ten years ago, but don’t now? What’d you think mattered in 2008, but don’t give two shits about today? What you value and spend your time thinking about has changed since then, so of course it makes sense that ten years from now the same will happen. What I worry about for all those people who reacted to the Marketwatch article as though the very concept of ever retiring was outside the realm of possibility is that when their beliefs or thoughts change, they’ll be much further behind than if they’d given themselves the choice by starting to save earlier.
Sure, today you might be 30 something and couldn’t care less about what you in your 60’s will live like. But how certain are you that you’ll feel the same way in 5 or 10 years?
To make this less of a diatribe and hopefully actually, you know, helpful in some way, there are a couple ideas that can help you see your future self see you:
Keep a daily journal that circles back by date each year. Seeing what you were thinking about on this date last year, and two years ago, and eventually five years ago, can help you start thinking about how you’ll feel a year or two or five from now. I’m not a deep, emotional journaler myself but even being reminded of coffees I had, work problems I was sorting through, or trips I took from years past helps me remember that what feels massively consequential today is often eminently forgettable when viewed through the rearview mirror.
Make friends with people much older than you. If you’re like most people, the bulk of your social group is within five or so years of you. Finding a way to build bonds with people decades older improves perspective on what you may care about as you age. And it has a ton of other benefits as well.
Regularly look at pictures of yourself from long ago. None of us tend to notice ourselves changing day to day, but it sure is obvious when we check out a picture of ourselves from 10 or 15 years ago. And for those in your 30’s, it’ll be even more impactful since now 10 years ago doesn’t place us in high school, but actually as a real adult, who had a job, and thought they were a grown up. It also can’t hurt to check out what some of these digital aging apps think you’ll look like in the future. I mean, check this out:
Obviously the above are just little things around the edges. Saving is hard, but for a lot of people, it’s not the impossible task they’ve made it out to be. And if you’ve ever looked into what life without retirement savings looks like, it might just be the nudge you need to take it seriously.