Your brain and your wallet aren’t always on speaking terms. Despite good intentions, mental tics and tripwires often undermine efforts to save more, spend less and better manage your money, a large and growing body of research by behavioral finance economists shows.
Of course, that’s old news. What’s new: a report out this month from Common Cents, a financial research lab at Duke University, with findings from 38 projects and experiments — one of the largest applications of behavioral economics of its kind — that help identify ways to counteract those unhelpful impulses and improve your financial health.
“The key is to figure out ways to make doing the right thing with your money easier,” says Common Cents co-founder and head of research Wendy de la Rosa. “Or, if you can’t make it easier, give yourself extra motivation to act.”
Although Common Cents works primarily with financial services firms to create tools and apps that help low- and moderate-income families, the insights can be adapted to benefit people of any age or income. The following four hacks were recommended by de la Rosa and co-founder Kristen Berman as especially suited to Next Avenue readers; all rely on the way you naturally think about your money to nudge you into acting in your own financial best interest (behavioral economist and bestselling author Dan Ariely and Mariel Beasley are the other Common Cents co-founders):
1. Use Natural Milestones as Motivation
Have a significant birthday coming up? If you’ll soon turn, say, 55, 60 or 65, you can use the red-letter date as a catalyst to tackle financial tasks you may have been putting off, such as updating your will, reviewing your retirement plan with an adviser or shopping for long-term care insurance.
In an experiment with Silvernest, a company that matches older homeowners who want extra income with potential renters, Common Cents built on earlier research showing that people are more prone to engage in life-altering behavior as they approach a new decade. To attract homeowners to Silvernest’s service, researchers designed two Facebook ads. One read, “You’re getting older. Are you ready for retirement? House sharing can help.” The other ad began instead with a reference to a specific birthday — saying for example, “You’re 64 turning 65.”
Out of some 75,000 homeowners who saw the ads, more than twice as many clicked on the age-specific one, which drew an overall response rate more than five times the norm for Facebook. The conclusion, says Berman, “When you call out a pivotal age, even if it doesn’t end in a zero, people feel the need to make meaningful changes in their lives.”
How to hack it: In the months and weeks before a milestone birthday, make a short list of specific financial tasks you want to be actively working to accomplish by that age. Behavioral economists call this pre-commitment. “People are much more likely to make decisions and plans for their future selves,” says Berman. “Your future self almost seems like another person, one who is removed from today’s temptations and will make perfect life choices.”
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