Are English-speakers less likely to save money?

If you speak English, you probably have a harder time saving money than someone who speaks German.

That's because the language you speak influences your money habits, according to a Yale study published this year. In The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior: Evidence from Savings Rates, Health Behaviors, and Retirement Assets, behavioral economist M. Keith Chen writes:

“Languages differ in whether or not they require speakers to grammatically mark future events. For example, a German speaker predicting rain can naturally do so in the present tense, saying: Morgen regnet es which translates to ‘It rains tomorrow.' In contrast, English would require the use of a future marker like ‘will' or ‘is going to,' as in: ‘It will rain tomorrow.' In this way, English requires speakers to encode a distinction between present and future events, while German does not. Could this characteristic of language influence speakers' intertemporal choices?”

Chen found that it does. “After scouring many data sets with millions of records on individual household savings behavior — along with a number of peculiar health performance metrics like grip strength and walking speed — I find that languages that oblige speakers to grammatically separate the future from the present lead them to invest less in the future,” he writes. “Surprisingly, this effect persists even after controlling for a speaker's education, income, family structure and religion.”

That means those who speak “future-less” languages, like German and Mandarin, often come out ahead. Financially, speakers of future-less languages are 31 percent more likely to have saved in any given year and have accumulated 39 percent more wealth by retirement.

Speakers of future-less languages are also:

  • 24% less likely to smoke
  • 29% more likely to be physically active
  • and 13% less likely to be medically obese

For a fun overview of the study's findings, check out this video, which was created by eBay Deals:

Connecting to our future selves

“This study demonstrates how language can influence our understanding of time, and how this can impact spending and saving behavior,” says Julie Ewald from eBay Deals, which created the video. “This correlation can show people that in order to change their saving habits, they may have to change their mindset to ‘the future is now' instead of ‘I always have more time.'”

But changing that mindset is a lot harder that it seems, and a 2010 study in the Journal of Consumer Research may explain why. According to the researchers, our willingness to give up short-term rewards to benefit our future self depends on how connected we feel to our future self. “When we think of saving money for the future, the person we think of can seem different from the person we are now,” explains Science Daily. “People have trouble sacrificing in the present for that stranger in the future.”

For instance, in the study, the researchers asked study participants to evaluate how connected and similar they felt to their future selves. Three weeks later, they were then given a choice: they could have a smaller gift card right away, or they could wait for a larger-value gift card. The result? The people who felt more connected to their future selves were willing to wait for the higher-value card, while the people who felt less connected to their future selves were less patient, choosing the lower-value card.

And speaking a futured language makes a person less connected to their future self, says Chen. “[If you speak a futured language], every time you discuss the future, or any kind of a future event, grammatically you're forced to cleave that from the present and treat it as if it's something viscerally different,” Chen said in his TEDTalk. “Now suppose that that visceral difference makes you subtly dissociate the future from the present every time you speak. If that's true and it makes the future feel like something more distant and more different from the present, that's going to make it harder to save. If, on the other hand, you speak a futureless language, the present and the future, you speak about them identically. If that subtly nudges you to feel about them identically, that's going to make it easier to save.”

So what's an English-speaker to do?

One thought is that imagining your future self could help you connect with your future self, helping you to save more money. Close your eyes and imagine yourself in one year, five years, 10 years. What are you doing? Where do you live? Where do you work? Think about how your future self might be similar to your present self. For instance, my future self is still a writer and still enjoys baking and travel. Thinking about those probable similarities helps me connect who I am today with who I'll be one day.

Another idea for connecting to your future self comes from Chris Bailey at A Year of Productivity: “Send an email to your future self. Seriously, do it. FutureMe.org lets you send an email to yourself in the future at a date you specify. A great way to bridge the gap between your present and future selves is to tell your future self how your current actions will make your future self better. Here's a letter I sent.”

Personally, I do feel disconnected from my future self. The rare times that I do think about her, it's like she's a different person altogether. (A person who's really got it together, by the way. Future April presorts her laundry and effortlessly throws dinner parties for 12.) Even though I've learned how to save and spend within my means, I can see how connecting with my future self might make saving money something I want to do, instead of something I do because I'm supposed to do it. And if I feel less “deprived,” maybe I'll be motivated to save even more.

Do you ever imagine your future self? Do you think imagining your future self would motivate you to save more?

More about...Psychology

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Elizabeth
Elizabeth
7 years ago

I’m a language geek so I find this study fascinating, but I think there’s a whole set of cultural factors that influence our money management habits. I mean, are we really at a disadvantage because of our language — or because we live in a society that preaches individuality and “having it all, and having it now”? Besides, some countries have seen far more hardship than the U.S. and Canada, so language could be indicative of a person’s cultural background than the “cause” itself. (The study speaks to correlations, not causes.) Hm. I’m not sure I agree with the logic… Read more »

Matt @ Your Living Body
Matt @ Your Living Body
7 years ago
Reply to  Elizabeth

I agree with you on this one. Our US culture of consumerism and keeping up with the Joneses has gotten our country in a lot of trouble and it extends through all different socioeconomic statuses from the bottom – all the way up to the government.

On a side note: I love the futureme.org website.

Laura
Laura
7 years ago
Reply to  Elizabeth

Not disagreeing with you per se, but playing devil’s advocate here – what if the present/future dichotomy in English contributes to the consumerist mindset of have it now, be it now? In other words, while the American mindset is definitely a big part of the problem, the dichotomy contributes to the problem? BTW, I’m NOT saying the present/future dichotomy in English causes the American mindset of immediate consumerism. “Contributes some percentage towards the problem” is how I’d put it. Language has a much bigger influence than most people realize. I’ve often thought that one reason (only one) why sexism is… Read more »

Jane Savers @ Solving The Money Puzzle
Jane Savers @ Solving The Money Puzzle
7 years ago

Instead of being language based perhaps the ability to save is culturally based? The way they feel about money in their culture?

Germans hate debt. The German word for debt is schulden which is very close to their word for guilt which is schuld. They feel that debt is something to feel badly about.

Anne
Anne
7 years ago

I think we all have the same thought here. That thoughts/habits about money are more culturally based than language based. How hard a conclusion to come to is that?

Honey Smith
Honey Smith
7 years ago

How is the word for debt being close to the word for guilt not language-based? This discussion reminds me of a fairly huge fight I got into in grad school with a linguistics PhD who, in a presentation on how metaphor pervades our language and subliminally influences our thoughts, referred to a theorist’s work on the subject as “seminal” and didn’t understand why I thought that his use of that word was, in that context, ironic (and sexist regardless of context). Read “Don’t Think of an Elephant!” by George Lakoff or his other watershed (not seminal) work with Mark Johnson,… Read more »

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
7 years ago
Reply to  Honey Smith

I’m currently reading “Metaphors we live by” — it’s enlightening!

I think to some extent our language is shaped by our attitudes, needs, desires, etc. and language in turn shapes how we think. Language isn’t a finite thing — it’s constantly changing.

Sam
Sam
7 years ago

I read the summary for this study when it was previously featured in the news. I sorta think this might be a chicken and egg issues. Do Germans have more words for savings b/c they save more or are they influenced by their language to save more. It wasn’t clear to me.

However, the cultural differences between societies that save and those that don’t are very interesting to me.

getagrip
getagrip
7 years ago

I call BS. I don’t care how you cut it, the cultural differences are real and carry great weight. Language is a connector for that culture, but you get a chicken and egg syndrome in does the nuances of the language determine the culture or the culture determine the nuances of the language. German society has a number of “norms” that are so ingrained it’s hard for many Americans to relate. From a co-worker stationed over there who lived off base there were expectations, like everyone mows their lawns Saturday morning. Not Saturday afternoon, or Sunday, or Monday night. Spring… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
7 years ago

I heard this on NPR the other day and they interviewed the researcher, but I sort of dismissed it because I’m not a fan of the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or linguistic relativism, which claims that language influences or determines thought with various degrees of strength. (I tend to side more with universalists like Chomsky or Pinkert.) Still, the survey shows some curious results and it’s probably worth giving it a look. HOWEVER (big however) just because there is (presumably) some correlation found between the future tense and a number of hand-picked behaviors, it does not follow that we have found… Read more »

Brian
Brian
7 years ago

I believe like others have said that culture is more of a factor here. I do think about my future self, being debt free and that helps keep me motivated today to continue to pay my bills. 🙂

Peter Brülls
Peter Brülls
7 years ago

But.. But German isn’t really “future less”. “Morgen regnet is” (Literally: It rains tomorrow”, it is just colloquial shorthand for “Morgen wird es regnen.” (It will rain tomorrow – it’s literally the same construct as in English, which is an romanized dialect of low German anyway. 🙂 )

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
7 years ago

Heh. I was wondering about that — doesn’t “tomorrow” mean the future? I think the word “later” is probably more harmful than a verb tense?

Jane
Jane
7 years ago

I can very succinctly and relevantly describe my opinion of this theory –

Quatsch! 😉

Frugal Sage
Frugal Sage
7 years ago

Correlation is not causation.

I am very dubious of studies that pick an interest concept (and it is interesting) and then find supporting data to back it up and release it as a revelation.

On top of that it seems to add to the path that humanity seems to be going in. Where society seems to make up excuses for everything we do – pretending we have no say in our own lives.

Soon we’ll start hearing people saying; ‘It’s not my fault i can’t save, i speak English!.

Laura
Laura
7 years ago
Reply to  Frugal Sage

Re: the path humanity’s going in, only if we turn reasons into excuses. I’m all for finding the reasons why we do what we do. They become excuses when we abdicate responsibility for taking appropriate actions based on those existing reasons. $0.02, k-chink.

Carol C
Carol C
7 years ago

Fascinating research topic. I can see how it applies to me (especially re: exercise).

Carla
Carla
7 years ago
Reply to  Carol C

Not I. I speak English and work out like a beast most days. 🙂 I have a more difficult time saving (though I do work hard at it as well).

Kristin Wong
Kristin Wong
7 years ago

I see the point that this is more about culture. But I don’t think it’s a stretch that culture affects language and language then affects behavior, thus effecting culture. I’m not saying money behavior is solely affected by language, but I think it’s feasible that language might have some influence on behavior, no?

Either way, what an interesting way to remember to be kind to your future self and avoid instant gratification.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
7 years ago
Reply to  Kristin Wong

Hi Kristin, Well, it’s not a matter of being a stretch or not– it’s a HUGE scientific and philosophical question that has been raging for over a century, and affecting everything from anthropology to linguistics to literature to major life-shattering government policies. At the root, it’s the ancient question of nature-vs.-nurture. Are humans an infinitely programmable tabula rasa as Aquinas and later the empiricists claimed? Or are we endowed with “innate ideas” as Kant proposed? When you look at the history of these ideas you realize they are related to political notions like “inalienable rights” (innate) or “social engineering” (programmable).… Read more »

Kristin Wong
Kristin Wong
7 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Got it, and thanks for the lesson! Point taken.

Side note: I miss your articles…But I’m glad we get a dose of your thoughts in the comments!

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
7 years ago
Reply to  Kristin Wong

Thanks Kristin! Yeah, GRS keeps me focused on building prosperity, and so I visit as often as possible. Plus, I love the discussions.

I don’t think I could manage a regular writing schedule right now, but I wouldn’t mind submitting guests posts every now and then, ha ha… In any case, I’m glad I don’t have to miss your articles– you’ve been on a roll lately! The one about the excuses got a good conversation going at Casa del Nerdo.

Marsha
Marsha
7 years ago

I think this study is ridiculous. People have been speaking what is essentially modern English for hundreds of years; same or even longer for other languages like German and Chinese. The high rate of obesity (for example) is an modern phenomena in the Western world. I don’t think Americans are fat because of the language we speak. Were our English-speaking ancestors more likely to be obese than our German-speaking ones? I don’t think so. Same with debt–modern phenomena due to culture, not language.

I really dislike when someone presents their speculations as if they are scientific fact.

Pete
Pete
7 years ago

I think somebody confused correlation with causation. Let me tell you: it isn’t easy to save money for _this_ german !

Wendy
Wendy
7 years ago

I’ve seen this in my tax practice. When someone comes to me to ask about using their IRA monies for something I tell them they don’t need to ask ME, they need to ask the old lady they’re going to see in the mirror in 40 years. It’s *HER* money they’re looting. What would SHE think about this idea? It pulls people up short. They hadn’t honestly considered that person before. To me, she’s a real person, as real as the 20 year old I once was. One is the past, one is the present, one is the future, but… Read more »

Allyson
Allyson
7 years ago
Reply to  Wendy

Love this idea!

Jen from Boston
Jen from Boston
7 years ago

I forwarded this to a friend who has a master’s in linguisitics. She seemed doubtful about this and said that many linguists reject the Apir-Whorf hypothesis. She also made the point that while a language may not explcitly denote future with grammar you still know you’re talking about the future (or past or present) by context.

MoneyAhoy.com
MoneyAhoy.com
7 years ago

Here comes the engineer to spoil the party.

Correlation does not imply causation. I’ve read thousands of articles like this over the years. Just because two things are correlated doesn’t mean one causes the other.

Google it – there are tons of funny examples like this one: There’s a strong correlation between foot size and ability to do arithmetic. Does this mean that larger feet contain “brainy” chemicals that help us do well at math?!? NO!!!

MoneyAhoy.com
MoneyAhoy.com
7 years ago
Reply to  MoneyAhoy.com

Here’s another one:

Butter production in Bangladesh has one of the highest correlation with the S&P 500 over a ten year period.

Does this mean that companies actually use the butter to fund profits? I wonder…

Ariana
Ariana
7 years ago

I wonder how being multi-lingual factors into this theory.

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