This is a guest post from Rob Bennett, a long-time GRS reader. Bennett created the first retirement calculator that contains an adjustment for the valuation level that applies on the day the retirement begins.
The Cat in the Hat and the Grinch. Who’s the miser? Who’s the spendthrift?
Nearly everyone is going to say that the Cat in the Hat is the spendthrift and that the Grinch is the miser. The Grinch is selfish and small-minded and unhappy; the Cat in the Hat is generous and carefree and full of fun.
This is why you find it hard to save.
Logic vs. Emotion
Logic rarely determines human behavior. Logic operates at a surface level; strong emotion trumps strong logic every time. People filter arguments and data to fit their emotional take on a subject; as Paul Simon observed in song: “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” Most of us appreciate the logical case for saving, but our day-to-day money management decisions are determined by our emotional takes on spending and saving. And our emotional takes strongly favor spending.
We like spenders. We’re not sure we entirely trust savers. We want to be known for having the traits that spenders are generally perceived to posses. We worry that our friends won’t feel as warmly towards us if we become known as savers. We brag about the most expensive things we buy. We keep any out-of-the-ordinary saving impulses under wraps for fear of being branded “extreme.”
Don’t believe me? Well, the folks who make television commercials know what works! When was the last time you saw a commercial that made its case through use of a logical syllogism? When you’re paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for each 60-second spot, you make your appeal to people’s deeply felt desires and fears.
But you know what? I like to play a game where I create different sorts of television commercials in my head. I imagine pro-saving TV ads and play them as needed to resist spending urges that might set back my financial freedom dreams.
Below, I’ve listed four emotional arguments TV commercials often use against saving and my equally emotional (and therefore, one hopes, equally influential) responses.
You Only Live Once!
This one works because it makes a true and important point. You’re thinking about buying a sweater. Looking good enhances your life in a concrete way in the here and now. Putting the $60 aside for your old age is a plus but only in the distant long-term and only in a vague way (you might end up with more money than you need in retirement — who really knows?).
The response commercial that runs in my head makes the case for saving goals that will be enhancing my life a lot sooner than an age-65 retirement. If I’m saving to be able to start my own business, or saving so that my wife can stay at home with the kids while they’re young, or saving so that we can both retire early — then I’m saving for a goal that is supported by the “You Only Live Once!” argument. I don’t try to deny the life-affirming power of the “You Only Live Once!” argument. I top it with a “You Only Live Once!” dream to which only saving the $60 can provide access.
You’re Being Petty!
You tell your kids that they can have one treat at the baseball game — a hot dog, a soda, a candy bar, whatever. But only one. You’re all having fun and they ask if they can have a second treat. You’re tempted. They’re cute kids. And they’re good kids. They may remember this family outing for many years. Isn’t it cheap to deny them that second hot dog? Aren’t you being a miser?
The television commercials I imagine tell a different message. My ads say that it’d be cheap never to go to a baseball game at all, and that it would be miserly not to let the kids have even one treat. But that once they’ve enjoyed the right amount of fun stuff (as determined by the parent at a time when he isn’t caught up in the emotion of the moment), the miserly thing is to give in and let them have the second treat.
Fun isn’t just about having Stuff. Fun is about having stuff at the right time — and about denying yourself stuff at the right time. You’ve taught the kids about one side of having fun by taking them to the game and by buying the first hot dog. If that’s the only lesson they learn from this special day, they’re going to have a hard time learning how to finish marathons, and how to fight for the jobs they most want, and how to maintain a good weight throughout their lives — and all sorts of other stuff.
Self-denial is fun! That’s the emotional message of a good number of the television commercials running through Rob Bennett’s head. (I never said it was a pretty place.)
If my friends were all frugal, it’d be a whole lot easier for me to be frugal myself. They’re not. So sometimes I find myself in a situation where the people at work suggest going out for beers on the way home on Thursday evening and the money to do that isn’t in my budget. Do I say “no”?
If I’ve broken the budget three times that month, I say “no”. A budget won’t help you if you don’t show respect for it. One of the TV commercials in my head makes the case that my budget isn’t a stern schoolmaster wagging a bony finger in my direction, but a close and loving friend trying to guide me gently in the direction I need to go to become the best possible version of me. You don’t diss your friends. So, while I might color outside the lines once or twice in the course of a month (friends understand this sort of thing), I say “no” when saying “yes” would run the risk of alienating my good friend Mr. Budget.
You’re Being Selfish!
You won’t buy your kid a crummy hot dog? What kind of creep are you? You won’t buy your girlfriend a big diamond? You won’t spend four weeks searching for Christmas presents for everyone who you held more than two conversations with over the course of the year? You’re selfish! That’s what it is with you!
Some commercials make you feel guilty for not spending, but there are different tapes playing through my head. The ads I imagine acknowledge that saving can indeed be done for selfish reasons. If the point of the project is to retire at age 45 and to then spend your remaining days watching sitcoms, the only effective response I can see to the “You’re Being Selfish!” commercial is saying “Yes, that’s true — and it’s nobody else’s business!”
That wouldn’t work emotionally for me, so I’ve been careful to craft saving goals that aren’t entirely selfish. Being able to spend more time with your family is only a partly selfish desire. Being able to do meaningful work is only a partly selfish desire. By devoting attention to the “You’re Being Selfish!” argument when I crafted my goals, I created a saving plan that can easily be defended from attack from emotional arguments for spending rooted in the “You’re Being Selfish!” claim.
Your saving plan will succeed or fall in the emotional realm. Use this to your advantage by imagining some commercials to play in your own mind and you’ll start winning battles that you used to lose in your I’ll-beat-them-with-logic days.
J.D.’s note: Bennett’s post very much reminds me of Take Back Your Brain, one of my favorite websites. Though TBYB is currently dormant, it contains a lot of great info about how to advertise to yourself using the same techniques that the big boys do. Check it out.