I’ve done some pretty dumb things with money. Maybe you have too. What I’ve come to realize is that those dumb actions were controlled by my money blueprint. And maybe you’ll agree with me that how our money blueprints affect the way we think and act toward money is a key factor in achieving financial freedom.
Most people know that they should be saving more. And they’re well aware that they should be spending less. The average person knows that credit cards are rigged against consumers. We know this stuff, so why do so many people struggle to make ends meet (let alone save for early retirement or other goals)? How can we learn to be smarter with money?
The emerging field of behavioral economics can give us some insight.
Two Lines and Two Minds
In Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow, he describes two systems in the brain responsible for thought. They are called, unoriginally, “System 1” and “System 2”. (Evidently, Nobel Laureate economists aren’t the most creative when it comes to naming things.)
- System 1 functions automatically. It’s quick and emotional. There’s very little effort involved, and we don’t have voluntary control over it. System 1 includes things like impulses and intuitions, which can protect us from danger.
- System 2 is logical and methodical. It involves mental activities that require effort, such as calculations. It’s typically associated with things like making choices and concentrating on difficult tasks. System 2 can help us to make good decisions — but it can also paralyze us with options.
When you think of your “self”, you’re probably thinking about System 2. It’s the system that we’re most familiar with. But System 1 is always there, lurking in the background. It’s hidden but powerful. It can influence System 2 and cause you to do some foolish and counterintuitive things.
Let’s look at an example.
In this image, point to the line that’s longest.
You most likely said that the bottom line is the longer of the two. This is clearly true. Except that it isn’t.
Both of these lines are the same length. Don’t believe me? Get out a ruler and measure them. Come on, you know you want to. Believe me now?
What is it that is causes us to misjudge the length of these lines? It’s System 1. System 1 controls our automatic reactions. In this optical illusion, it tells you that the bottom line is longer.
System 2, our slow and deliberate thinking system, just isn’t able to engage in effortful thought about every little detail in our lives. We each have a finite amount of brain power, of attention and focus. To make things more efficient, System 2 often lets System 1 handle trivial tasks. But sometimes, an with this illusion, System 1 leads System 2 astray.
Often during our day-to-day lives, we rely on System 1. We don’t even realize we’re doing so. We lean on gut reactions and impulses when deciding how to act.
For example, when you’re at a party and you see a delicious dessert table, your gut reaction might be, “Outta my way, I’m starving!” (As someone formerly self-described as “husky”, that’s my reaction!). This is System 1 in action.
However, before you stampede through the crowd to rush the desserts, the much more polite, socially-aware System 2 pipes up: “Now now, you know we’ve been trying to watch what we eat. That isn’t a good decision in the long term.”
But if you’re like me — and many people are — you probably have a tendency to ignore System 2 and rush the desserts like a wild person. (In a socially acceptable manner, of course.) It’s clear that System 2 thinking can be overridden by System 1 thinking.
You can probably guess where we’re headed here. Turns out that System 1 can also override System 2 when it comes to handling your money.
You might fail to save, for instance, because you’d rather spend on yourself right now. That’s the impulsive, impatient System 1 talking. System 1 doesn’t want to “lose’ money to your future self.
People hate losing. In fact, research shows that we feel the pain of losing twice as much as the pleasure of gaining. This “loss aversion” leads us to do all that we can to avoid losing — even when we’re not actually losing.
When people think about saving money for retirement, it feels like a loss. Why? Because we see our paychecks each month and notice that money is “missing”. It’s a loss to our present selves. We can’t spend the money today, so it feels like it’s lost to us.
Now, System 2 knows better, but it’s unable to sway System 1. No matter how much we try, System 1 experiences saving money as a loss. And because we hate loses, we do everything we can to avoid them.
This means that, in general, it doesn’t feel good to save.
How to Beat Loss Aversion
One way to prevent your brain from experiencing loss aversion is to fool it into not realizing that you’re saving. Your goal is to trick the System 1 side of your brain. The best way to do this is to make your saving automatic.
All modern banks and retirement savings plans now allow you to automate your transactions. And if you haven’t already automated your retirement saving, you should do so. Now. No, I’m serious. I mean right now. Go ahead. We’ll wait.
All set up? Great!
By automating your retirement contributions, you don’t have to make the choice each month to save. This is good. You’re bypassing System 1. Your brain may still eventually notice that the money is gone, but it won’t experience it as a tangible loss.
That’s certainly been true in my own case.
I’ve been saving automatically for several years. The money that comes out of my account is dead to me. I don’t even think about it. It’s almost in the same category as taxes, unemployment premiums, or charitable giving. I don’t even consider it my money, so it doesn’t hurt when I “lose” it.
System 1 isn’t the only villain, though. Deliberate, methodical System 2 can also get in the way of your financial success.
- Have you ever spent an hour on the phone trying to save $10 on a cell phone bill? I have.
- Have you ever been too scared to ask for a discount on a hugely expensive, regularly priced item like a TV, a car, or maybe even a house? I have. (Asking for a discount of 1% on a $20,000 vehicle would save you $200. And it would take you what, about 30 seconds?)
This the Pareto principle in action. The Pareto Principle says that 80% of the results for a given activity result from 20% of the effort. System 2 thinks the Pareto principle is bunk. It’ll gladly let you spend hours to save pennies…but then refuse to spend a few seconds to save dollars.
This isn’t to say that you ought not spend the time to obtain small victories. Go for it! But if it takes thirty seconds to save $200 on a car purchase, you’d have to do twenty of those hour-long phone calls that save you ten bucks.
Battling Your Brain
J.D. often says that money is more about mindset than it is about math. I agree. Our minds cause many of us to struggle with our finances. Between faulty money blueprints and our two thinking systems, it’s no wonder we sometimes encounter hardships.
Understanding how our brains work won’t necessarily solve your money problems, but it may help you to recognize faulty thought processes when you experience them. And this awareness could help you make smarter choices with your finances — and your future.
What do you do to overcome your natural tendencies to make poor choices with money? How do you trick yourself to be smarter with money? Let me know in the comments below (or on Twitter or on Facebook).