Why Are Some People Good At Saving Money? And What Can We Learn From Them?
Money is a feminist issue — and yet, women are still reluctant to talk about it. According to a recent Bustle survey of more than 1,000 Millennial women, more than 50 percent of people said they never discuss personal finances with friends, even though 28 percent reported feeling stressed out about money every single day. Bustle's Get Money series gets real about what Millennial women are doing with their money, and why — because managing your finances should feel empowering, not intimidating.
The fact that saving money is difficult, but necessary if you're going to be in control of your life, is kind of the first lesson of Personal Finance 101. But saving money isn't all pain — often, we can feel a sense of serenity (or smugness) from seeing the numbers in our savings account rise, or from squirreling money away under our mattresses. Some of the positive feelings we feel after we save are obvious — part of the joy of having savings is the sense of security that yes, you will be able to survive if life suddenly blows up and your car needs all four tires replaced and your dog requires special emergency surgery and must be flown to a clinic in Idaho. But beyond that, there are other reasons why saving money can feel pleasurable — and they relate to hierarchies of pleasure and the mechanisms of capitalism.
Anybody who's been raised on parables like Aesop's grasshopper and ant (grasshopper puts away nothing for winter, ant busily spends summer stocking up on food, grasshopper dies and ant is happily ensconced when the weather turns bad) will have been inculcated with the virtues of saving up for bad days. But there are deeper psychological mechanisms that lead some of us to save easily — and understanding them sheds a lot of light on how we can all develop more effective savings habits.
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We Can Learn From People Who Are Obsessed With Saving Money
The concept of taking joy in saving money to the exclusion of all else is known as being a 'miser' — a figure who's played a prominent role in many works of philosophy, economics and literature. A Christmas Carol's Ebenezer Scrooge is the archetypal miser (who was, in fact, based on a real man): an eccentric who's prepared to live in abject conditions, despite his considerable fortune, all in order to save more money. Scrooge is, of course, famous for also attempting to impose his miserliness on others, too.
Ancient philosophers often viewed being too conscious of saving money as a danger to human morality — in fact, they thought saving too much ran the same moral risks as being too decadent. Aristotle, in his Ethics, depicted the miser as one of the two ends of a scale of liberality, with the other being a person who gives away all their wealth freely and runs around buying everybody free meals and balloons. The ideal path, he thought, was to be moderate, somewhere in between. The eighteenth century philosopher David Hume, according to academic Joshua Gooch, took on this idea and proposed that capitalism tends to create misers naturally, because it's all about the "daily increase of fortune."
But Hume also had another perspective on miserliness that carries deep psychological insight. Hoarders, Hume thought, were indulging in an age-old miser's illusion: "the triumph of his will over pleasure and necessity," in the words of Hume specialist Thomas Merrill. (Ignore the gendered aspect of this phrase: women actually have healthier savings habits than men, according to a 2015 financial report, but often have less wealth to put into their savings in the first place.)
To Hume, the experience of deriving happiness from saving, to the exclusion of basically everything else, was a bit of a paradox. Hume believed that misers think they're freeing themselves from the very notion of worldly pleasures and functioning as supreme masters of their own existences —but they're still experiencing worldly pleasure, just a different kind.
So what can we learn from history's iconic misers? They weren't obsessed with saving money because they were better people, or above life's more pleasurable indulgences — they were just indulging in a different kind of pleasure. Being a miser is all about feeling pleasure about how your iron self-control is more powerful than your desire.
People Who Save Money Are Still Using Their Money For Pleasure — Just In A Different Way
Though saving money can feel like a very psychologically complex operation, the basic actions are simple: you're willing to forgo spending now (on something that may give you instant pleasure) for the sake of spending in the future, greater financial security, and other assets.
It's an exercise in decision-making that prioritizes the future, as well as gains that are a bit abstract (if you save now, maybe one day you can buy a house!), over present-day gains that are pretty concrete (you could immediately buy that shiny Gucci coat and swan around looking like Cate Blanchett!).
Psychologically speaking, saving money and deferring that instant joy should make us pretty upset, because an immediate pleasure has been taken away — but somehow it doesn't, and we keep doing it anyway. Why?
Humans love pleasure. Like other animals, we have brain circuits that reward us when we do something awesome; these circuits operate in complex and interrelated ways. And saving money, it seems, still gives us a hit of pleasure — we derive genuine pleasure from having the security of a buffer in uncertain times and a resource for the future. And that itself is also pleasure. As the economist William Stanley Jevons said,
"It is certain that a very large part of what we experience in life depends not on the actual circumstances of the moment so much as on the anticipation of future events. As Mr. Bain says, 'The foretaste of pleasure is pleasure begun: every actual delight casts before it a corresponding ideal.'"
This goes back to Hume: even if we think we're a brilliant, sensible person who's totally immune to pleasure because we've put the money we could have spent on a holiday into a boring old savings account, we're still prioritizing pleasure. We're just going with different ones.
What Our Parents Called "Thriftiness" Is Just Willpower — And Having The Money To Save In The First Place
For a long time, the famous economic psychologist Karl-Erik Wärneryd explains, being a good saver was explained as being "thrifty." The concept of "thrift" was supposedly a collection of traits and moral characteristics that, allegedly, made some better savers than others. Your parents or grandparents may have told you how great it was to develop "thrifty" qualities — and how they not just netted you more money in the bank, but also made you a better person.
Lately, however, we've been discovering that "thriftiness" may be more about the simple mechanics of self-control and willpower than about any inherent character traits.
There's a lot of psychological disagreement about whether or not willpower is a limited resource. For many years, psychologists believed that self-control was finite, and could be "depleted" after you use too much of it. The classic study supporting this point of view found that students who'd had to resist eating chocolate-chip cookies did much worse on a self-control test afterwards than those who didn't have to resist the cookies beforehand.
But we're increasingly discovering that our perceptions of willpower may shape our self-control more than anything else. Various studies have discovered that if people believe that their willpower is limited, they'll exercise it less often — they make fewer New Year's resolutions, for instance, or take a break after a task that involves a lot of self-control and show less self-control afterwards. If they believe that willpower is infinite, though, they'll just keep showing it, no matter how many other bits of self-control they've exercised that day.
This may also give insight into the pleasure aspect of saving. If we believe our willpower is easily depleted, we may feel particularly proud of ourselves when we're able to do something that requires self-control, like saving a chunk of money. That pleasure won't last, though, because we'll rapidly think we've used it all up.
Conversely, if we think of willpower like a muscle that gets toned instead of depleted when we use it repeatedly, we may incur pleasure from regularly exercising it.
There's a limit to what this line of thinking can accomplish, of course. The self-control model may help you if you're just trying to figure out how to blow through less of your paycheck — but it doesn't help people who are already struggling with severe financial obstacles, as Harvard professor of economics Sendhil Mullainathan explained to TIME. When you have "urgent expenses" and a large amount of money stress, you have less attention to give to the concept of savings (and, obviously, less ability to actually save any money). The pleasure that comes from saving, sadly, only really kicks in once you're above a certain wealth level and can actually save for the future without putting your present in peril.
This is why we should push back against fees and other charges penalizing people with irregular or low incomes who can't put money away for a rainy day — because every day is a rainy day.
Remember, being able to save money (and feel smug about it) is a privilege.