When it comes to personal finance management, your brain is a two-edged sword. If well trained, it can be a cold and calculating machine capable of incredible feats of self-control and frugality. If not kept in check, your brain can become putty in the hands of marketers, and ready to be manhandled by retailers and lenders.
Related article: 13 Most Stupidest Things People Are Still Buying
Retailers and lenders use ever more sophisticated psychological weapons to influence your behavior and get you to buy their products and services. The only way you stand a chance is by fighting back with your own mental arsenal. Here are 16 tricks you can play on yourself that will actually save you money and offer insight into what makes your financial unconscious tick.
1. Convert the Cost of Purchases into Time
Before buying something you don’t absolutely need, consider how long you have to work to earn the money required to pay for it. This trick works particularly well when you’re on minimum wage.
A $1,000 flat-screen TV equals 100 hours or half a month at a full-time job with a $10 hourly rate. I would play this trick on myself when I was at college, cleaning toilets. Is a splurge really worth the hours it takes to earn it?
This trick is effective but use this method sparingly. It may cause you to lose the will to live when you work out how long you have to work to get a haircut, buy a round of drinks for your friends, or go to the dentist for a filling.
2. Hold Your Pee
Worried about spending too much when hitting the mall? Drink five to six cups of water, wait for 30 minutes and off you go. Here’s a study by researchers at the Netherlands’ University of Twente – and this is the title of their paper – “Increased urination urgency facilitates impulse control in unrelated domains.” (Psychological Science)
Apparently the effort of holding your pee has an “inhibitory spillover effect” that makes you more anal about spending and increases your self-control.
3. Always Choose the “Small” Option
This is more of a psychological counter-trick because cafes and restaurant chains are the ones who are trying to pull a fast one on us.
In the olden days, you had your regular and large sizes, but McDonalds and Starbucks started employing psychologists and in came a third, larger option. Now the regular is small, the large is medium and the new, even bigger size is now the new “large” on the block.
This instantly makes the previously large size seem reasonable and balanced, not at all extravagant or decadent. Before you know it you’ve spent anything from one to five dollars on extra food or drink you didn’t really want.
Sometimes the trick is carried out multiple times. The original McDonald’s fountain drink size back in 1955 was 7 oz, which seems ridiculously small when compared to McDonalds Supersize (42 oz) or 7-Eleven’s 41 oz Gulp.
4. Give Your Money Away
This may sound a little counterintuitive, but hear me out. Once we have satisfied our basic needs, the main reason we spend money is to do things that entertain us or make us happier.
According to a study published in Science Magazine spending money on others makes us happier than spending it on ourselves. Help someone else pay for their groceries and you can get the same buzz for less cash.
5. Keep a Visual Reminder of Your Financial Goals
Whatever your long term goal is, keep a picture of it in your wallet. If you dream of a scuba diving trip to Belize – and who doesn’t? – keep a picture of the Blue Hole.
If you want a new kitchen, keep a snippet from the magazine that gave you the idea. If you want to pay for your children’s college costs carry a picture of them wearing and oversized cap and gown outfit. This will remind you of your “big picture” goals every time you’re tempted to splurge on a frivolous purchase.
6. Make New Friends
Humans have a deeply ingrained need for social connection. If we feel socially excluded (i.e. we don’t have many friends) we don’t have any qualms about buying our way to social connection. That was the conclusion of a study by Nicole Mead and Roy Baumeister which noted how people will do pretty much anything to feel included and accepted.
The sophisticated experiments used in the study made people spend more, spend less, or even engage in risky behavior (consume illicit drugs) simply to feel connected and popular. Of course, you need to choose your friends wisely. Any financial benefits you receive will be canceled out if you spend your time around gambling addicts and shopaholics.
7. Leave Your Friends at Home
Although having friends can help you spend less, the opposite is also true if you make the mistake of taking them shopping with you. Peer pressure is often the reason shoppers will buy things they don’t need.
Bottom line: unless your goal is to be broke, shopping is not a team sport.
8. Ask for New Bills When Getting Cash Back
Humans are the only ones we judge by their physical appearance, we even judge the value of money by its looks. The dirtier and older the bill, the quicker we want to spend it. I know this sounds crazy, but it’s true.
A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research showed that people are quicker to spend old and dirty bills than new and crisp notes.
Apparently, we take pride in owning clean and new bills but are embarrassed to carry the nastier specimens, which we’re happy to spend as soon as we can. The quick fix is to only accept brand new bills when you ask for cashback. The cash teller may look at you funny, but who cares?
9. Find Your Survival Number
Write down a list of everything you need to survive every month. Be inclusive but try to keep it to the bare necessities, such as rent/mortgage, food, utilities and transportation. Divide the total amount by 30. This is your daily survival number. For me, it’s something around $35.
Now keep that number in mind whenever you plan to buy something. Suddenly, insignificant purchases, like a $5 treat, or a $15 taxi drive, become much more expensive when you compare it to your daily survival number.
10. Leave Your Credit Card at Home
Buying stuff with cash instead of credit cards is a proven way of reducing the amount of money you spend. Why does it work? Consumers tend to focus on the benefits of a purchase when they pay with credit but think more about the cost when they pay with cash. (Journal of Consumer Research)
11. Calculate the Opportunity Cost of Every Purchase
Treat your purchases as a Chief Financial Officer would. That is, consider the real cost of every unnecessary purchase.
When a CFO decides whether or not to invest in a new piece of machinery or service, she doesn’t only make sure the increase in profits will pay for the investment. She also makes sure the return on the investment will be higher than putting the cash into an alternative investment, such as a low- to a medium-risk investment fund.
Let’s run some numbers to illustrate. Imagine you are considering placing your three-year-old child into a private pre-school that costs $3,000 a year. Weigh the benefits she will obtain against investing the $3,000 into your child’s college fund. Assuming a return of 7%, your kid will have $8,277 to put against college tuition costs by the time she hits 18, even if you never add another cent to her college fund. Imagine if on top of the initial $3,000 you also contribute $100 a month, by shopping at second-hand stores and eating out less.
By the time she is 18, she will have a $38,431. That could be enough to pay for the tuition costs of a four-year degree if she goes to a community college for the first two years and then chooses an in-state college.
12. Merge Your Accounts
If you’re like most people, you have your money spread over several accounts, such as a savings account, a checking account, a PayPal account, and three or four credit cards. This can make it difficult to have a clear picture of how much money you have or owe.
The Journal of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes published a study that indicates that people save more and spend less, 10 percent less to be exact when they have a single account as opposed to multiple liquid accounts.
13. Get a Little Stressed
Stress can be deadly, but being too relaxed, especially when it comes to financial matters, is also dangerous. A study published in the Journal of Marketing Research, reveals that people who go shopping when they’re completely chilled out overestimate the real value of things and underestimate the financial risk of buying them.
The good news is that it doesn’t take much to overcome this tendency. Simply writing a shopping list or going shopping immediately after work is enough to re-balance our perception of value.
14. Double the Cost of Everything
Do you seem to eat better, work less, and have more fun than other people with your same income? That’s probably because you’re a frugal person, right? Or at least you want to be. Who else gets to trick 14 in an article like this?
In that case money in your hands is worth more than in the hands of “average” folk. It’s time you start seeing it that way before you spend it. If a shirt is worth $39.95, tell yourself that is really $80 for someone like you. This psychological trick takes practice to master, but it’s extremely powerful. If you still want to buy it at double the price, then it’s either a great deal or something that’s important enough for you to be worth purchasing.
15. Be Thankful
Write a list of all the things you should be thankful for. Showing a thankful attitude will not only make you happier and more content, but it will also help you spend less and make smarter financial decisions. In a study published in Psychological Science, researchers induced participants’ feelings of happiness, neutrality and gratitude and then offered them the option of receiving $80 in a month or $54 immediately.
The participants who were induced to be either happy or neutral preferred to get the money immediately, which is the usual response in this type of experiment. However, those who were induced to be grateful preferred to delay immediate gratification and wait for the larger sum, which is clearly the smarter choice from a financial standpoint.
16. Shop at Busy Times
On average, people spend less when they are shopping in crowded and noisy stores. Time your shopping trips around times you know stores will be busy. Sure, it’s not a fun way to do your shopping, but if shopping is what you do for fun, maybe you should find yourself a new hobby. Adding a little stress and the motivation of getting to the cash register as soon as possible will help you keep within budget.
Chose a handful of these psychological tricks and commit to using them for the next 21 days. No, this won’t guarantee they will become a habit. Sadly, the 21-day habit formation trick is a myth.
However, three weeks will give you a chance of seeing the financial benefits of training your brain and will push you to further improve your personal finance ninja skills.
Andrew is the managing editor for SuperMoney and a certified personal finance counselor. He loves to geek out on financial data and translate it into actionable insights everyone can understand. His work is often cited by major publications and institutions, such as Forbes, U.S. News, Fox Business, SFGate, Realtor, Deloitte, and Business Insider.