Hack Your Brain: 15 Sneaky Psychological Tricks to Help You Save Money

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Saving money isn’t fun.

It’s just not something your brain wants to do. So if you want to develop good financial habits, you’re going to have to trick yourself.

Sneaky Psychological Tricks to Save Money

Thankfully, I’ve got a lot of experience tricking myself into making better money decisions — I’m only human, after all — and I’m here to share some of my favorite ideas with you.

1. Don’t Trust Yourself

I’m all for trusting yourself in most areas of life, but it can backfire when it comes to money. Why? Because we’re human, and we want what we want — and often that means spending, not saving.

I suggest taking the control out of your hands. By that, I mean automating your finances.

Here are two strategies you can try:

  • Set up automatic withdrawals from your paycheck into your savings or retirement accounts. (Or both!)One way to do this is to push 10% of your paycheck into a separate, hands-off account with an online bank like Chime. It doesn’t charge overdraft fees, monthly maintenance fees, foreign transaction fees or minimum balance fees.
  • Set up an automatic savings account through Digit. Simply link it to your checking account, and its algorithms will determine small (and safe!) amounts of money to withdraw into a separate, FDIC-insured savings account. It’s free to use for 30 days, then $2.99 a month after that.

2. Incentivize Your Savings

Most banks suck. They charge you maintenance fees and monthly minimums — and then give you next to no interest in return. If that doesn’t take a toll on your psyche, I don’t know what would.

Instead, sign up for a bank that’ll treat you right — and shower you with decent interest rates.

An iOS app called Varo Money, for example, combines traditional banking tools with modern technology to help its customers become financially healthy.

Here’s the best part: Pair your Bank Account with a Varo Savings Account where you’ll earn 1.5% annual percentage yield. That’s more than 20 times — repeat, 20 times — the average savings account.

Earning interest (or, as we like to call it, bonus money) each year is a fabulous psychological incentive. Those little rewards will light up your brain like a Christmas tree — and encourage you to keep saving.

3. Calm Your Mind

Did you know your credit score could be inaccurate? One out of five credit reports have an error, according to a study by the Federal Trade Commission.

To keep a closer eye on your credit and find peace of mind, get your credit score and a “credit report card” for free from Credit Sesame. It breaks down exactly what’s on your credit report in layman’s terms, how it affects your score and how to address it.

Because it simplifies everything, you should be able to spot any errors. For instance, if you find an “unpaid” credit card that you know you paid, or a bill in collections you know never existed, you can dispute the incorrect information and raise your credit score.

4. Imagine Your Future (Richer) Self

Sure, spending that $2 right now doesn’t seem like a big deal. But what if I told you that $2 could turn into more than $60 by the time you retire? You might change your mind, right?

The key? Don’t keep you money under a mattress. Instead, open a retirement account like a 401(k).

Once you’ve got a 401(k), tapping into that account and deciphering the information — or lack thereof — can be hard.

There’s a robo-adviser for that. Blooom, an SEC-registered investment advisory firm, will optimize and monitor your 401(k) for you.

It gives you an initial 401(k) checkup for free, and you’ll get to know your account a little more intimately. Find out if you’re paying too many hidden fees, have the appropriate amount invested in stocks versus bonds, that kind of fun stuff.

After that, the tool is $10 a month (first month free through The Penny Hoarder) to continue to monitor your retirement account. Let Blooom know your target retirement age, and it can help you get there by investing more and less aggressively.

…and, while you’re at it, picture yourself as a silver-haired socialite playing golf or lying on the beach or doing whatever it is happily retired people do.

5. Start Small

Finding the money to save is tough, especially when you’re on a tight budget. But it’s vital you start putting anything — even crumbs — toward your future.

One trick to get yourself to save is to set aside your digital change — which Acorns does for you.

Once you connect your credit and/or debit cards, it rounds up your purchases to the nearest dollar and puts the change into an investment account.

The app is $1 a month for balances under $1 million, and you’ll get a $5 bonus when you sign up.

Your brain won’t even know you’re saving — I can’t think of a better trick than that!

6. Stop, Drop… and Wait

“Let me sleep on it” is one of my favorite phrases. I’ve avoided a lot of sticky situations by waiting to make a decision until the next day. And that wisdom definitely holds up for financial decisions, too.

Create a mandatory waiting period for new purchases. Some experts advise a timeline of 30 days while others say you should wait one day for every $100 in price.

By forcing yourself to take a step back, you’ll prevent regrettable impulse purchases.

7. Keep an Eye on Your Spending

At the end of each week or month, take time to track your expenses. It’s really eye-opening to see where your money’s going — and you have no excuses, because money management apps like Empower make it easy.

Once you link your bank account, Empower will help you set up a monthly budget and monitor your account to see whether you're paying too much for your bills and look for opportunities to save.

8. Avoid Tabs at All Costs

Want to pay cash? Or start a tab?

If you want to save money, your answer should always be the former.

There’s no pain involved in ordering another drink — but there is pain involved in paying for it. Make yourself feel it.

That’s the same reason a lot of people eschew credit cards; they don’t actually feel like they’re spending money when they use one. It’s like one giant tab. If you’re one of those people, you can hide your credit card deep within your wallet — or even literally freeze it in a block of ice.

Also consider this when it comes to autopay services and subscriptions. Even saving your credit card number into your internet browser can make online shopping a little too easy.

9. Think of Prices in Hours

Let’s say a new set of golf clubs costs $300. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? After all, there are more expensive items you could be buying.

But hold your horses. Before dropping three Benjamins, think of it this way: How many hours would it take you to earn that $300?

If you earn $10 an hour, that’s 30 hours of work — not counting taxes or other factors that reduce the size of your paycheck.

Are you willing to pay 30 hours of your life for those clubs?

Sometimes just looking at purchases in a different way is what your brain needs to make the right decision.

10. Use the Stranger Test

Is that cute new sweater speaking to you from the rack? Just whispering you need to have it?

Well, before listening too hard, check the price. Say it’s $32. Now, use a psychological trick sometimes called the stranger test, which Work to Not Work calls “the simplest budget/savings trick ever.”

Imagine a stranger standing in front of you; in one hand, they have the sweater, and in the other, they have $32.

Which would you rather have? In most cases, the cash is probably more appealing.

11. Save as Much as You Can When You Have to Spend

You’ve employed all the tricks you can think of and found that, yes, you are going to buy whatever you’ve been muddling around in your head.

Let yourself enjoy that purchase — while making sure you’re saving as much as possible.

Here are a few simple ways to cut the cost on your purchases.

  • One of my favorite tricks is to use a cash-back website like Ebates. When you buy an item through one of its 1,200 partner retailers, it’ll reward you with cash back — sometimes as much as 25%! Plus, you’ll get a $10 Walmart gift card just for getting started.
  • There’s also Ibotta, which is traditionally known as a cash-back app for groceries. You can also earn cash back on just about anything you purchase — from Amazon finds to a Hulu subscription to a flight for your next vacation. And you’ll earn a $10 bonus after your first rebate.
  • Now, don't delete your email receipts. Paribus is a free tool that gets you money back for your online purchases. It's free to sign up, and once you do, it will scan your email for any receipts. If it discovers you’ve purchased something from one of its monitored retailers, it will track the item’s price and help you get a refund when there’s a price drop.

Heads up, though: Be sure these tools aren’t tricking you into spending more money. You might want to impulsively purchase an item because Ibotta’s offering $10 cash back on it. Resist the urge.

We recommend nailing down the item you want to purchase then checking for cash-back offers so you don’t get distracted by the discounts.

12. Turn That “No” Into a “Yes”

Saying “no” is no fun, so don’t think of it that way. Instead, make your brain view every “no” as a “yes.”

Here’s what I mean: When your friend asks you to a dinner you can’t afford, don’t think of turning her down. Think of it as saying “yes” to other opportunities: paying off your student loans, going on that dream vacation or finally investing in your retirement.  

Then, look at staying in as a money-making opportunity.

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13. Buddy up

When you want to exercise more, popular wisdom suggests you find a buddy, someone who will make sure you hit the gym every day.

The same goes for finances: Accountability partners work.

If you want to save more money, recruit a friend with similar goals. Agree that every time you make an unnecessary purchase or go out for drinks, you’ll text each other.

Just the knowledge you have to report your actions will help you stay on track — and hopefully, eventually, turn responsible spending into a habit.

14. Picture Your Goals… Literally

Saving for a house? Cut out inspiring home photos from magazines, then hang them on your wall.

Saving for a trip to Paris? Make the Eiffel Tower your phone’s wallpaper.

Because they seem so far out of reach, saving for big goals can be difficult. Visualizing them is a smart way to stay motivated.

You can even wrap a photo of your goal around your credit card, so that every time you take it out, you’ll think twice about using it.

15. Let Yourself Splurge

That’s right: I said let yourself splurge. It won’t save you money at the moment, but it probably will in the long term.

Developing good financial habits takes time and effort — which means you need to give yourself a little breathing room.

Treat yourself to something that’s not practical every three months: a manicure, a bottle of wine, a night at the movies.

It’ll take some of the pressure off — and remind you that a good life is possible when you’re a saver; it just takes a little more work.

Susan Shain is a freelance writer and digital nomad. She covers travel, food and personal finance (basically, how to save money so you can travel more and eat more). Visit her blog at susanshain.com, or say hi on Twitter @susan_shain.

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