I do it every day. I can’t keep my hands off of it. The button calls out to me like the siren song of the New York Stock Exchange Bell. Every morning, the minute I open my eyes I do it. I…log in. I check my main savings account and then I check my emergency savings, and then I check the big mama of them all, my ROTH IRA.
It’s time to come out of the shadows. It’s time to stop feeling ashamed, stop being shamed, and proclaim proudly: I AM A SAVER AND I LIKE IT!
Unlike many, in varying degrees, I have always saved. I was that neurotic student who obsessively recalculated my grade point average after every pop quiz and mid-term. I am what an old professor used to call a quantifier and after college, with my first real job, this habit transferred to updating even the smallest fractional increase or decrease in my bank account.
Whenever fearful about my finances or my future, I get out my trusty calculator, a pen, and paper, and I log on. I make projections and readjustments. Like I said, neurotic, but here’s the big secret: it’s also erotic. Not only do my nerves settle once I’ve reassured myself that I can pay my rent and Universe-forbid cover an unforeseen expense such as the hip MRI and death of my computer I recently endured, I get a little tingle, a little charge from my savings account. And it’s not because it’s a large amount — -size doesn’t matter! Don’t get me wrong, I would love to log on to several more zeros, but honestly, month after month, as I meet my savings goal and the number rises incrementally, I get turned on. Strange but true. Why? Wouldn’t it be sexier, make more sense if I got tingly slipping into the latest Max Mara dress, ogling a pair of SJP kitten heels before handing over my credit card, dining at a Michelin starred restaurant or jetting off to Lisbon for port and a meat and cheese plate?
Yes, and no.
According to Bill Gordon, Ph.D., writing in Psychology Today, “Technically, choosing between the smaller immediate reward and the larger pay-off later is an intertemporal choice, meaning choices that differ in the timing of their consequences. Many believe that impulsivity, or the inability to choose the larger delayed gratification of weight reduction, over the immediate reward of eating a candy bar, is a matter of “poor self-control.” It is not that simplistic. Biology wires our brains by observing our early-life experiences to determine how our world should be so that our brains are prepared to respond to life accordingly.”
Dr. Gordon’s background is in Ingestive Behaviors and Obesity but also Functional Neuroimaging and Brain Research. And I believe, based on my own thoroughly unscientific research and lived experiences that some of the reasons that some people struggle with obesity are the same reasons that some people struggle with debt.
In other words, you may eat that box of cookies when you know you shouldn’t because your parents fed you when you were unhappy and fed you when you got a good grade. And you spent your last fifty bucks on a bottle of wine instead of paying down your cellphone bill or financed a weekend getaway with your Capital One card instead of saving for it because that’s what your parents or others around you did when you were just a little bond.
It does to Morgan Faulkner, who calls herself a jack-of-all-trades but who is really a fabulous actress and bon vivant. Already a pretty sexy woman, albeit, a non-saver, after a lifetime of “living mostly paycheck to paycheck or splitting the difference between Peter and Paul to get by” is now a dedicated investor. She’s one of my success stories, if I may humble brag. Fairly new to the habit, Morgan sets small objectives for herself.
“The first time I really appreciated my ability to save was when you helped me to save money for a vacation AND have enough to pay rent and bills for the month following my return. This was spring of 2012, and it heavily influenced my belief about my ability to save moving forward. It also improved the quality of my vacation by a million! It is much easier to relax when you know you can pay your bills AND enjoy yourself.
Every time I reach a savings goal or pay something off, it feels like a huge weight off my shoulders.”
So how did Morgan break free to live the life of a debt free playa? How did I discover that saving a little every month wasn’t just a duty, the grown up thing to do, but also hella sexy? The same way you get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. Dr. Gordon calls it delayed gratification, which I know sounds like a dirty word but which is really a very good thing if only you can get your brain to believe it!
“Studies have also shown that anticipation of reward activates the mOFC (Medial Orbital Frontal Cortex). Dopamine, the neurochemical that makes reward pleasurable, releases in the mOFC […] The more familiar you are with the reward value of an event and its consequences, the more likely you are to choose it over less familiar rewards.”
In other words, although savings involves sacrifice, self-denial, and self-control — -all the selfs! — — intrinsically, delayed gratification is a positive thing. After years of building and honing my savings game, now it makes me nervous and literally uncomfortable when I don’t save something. Even putting five bucks in an envelope and tucking it away can sooth my savage savings beast. How did I get to this mythic land? Remember that practice I mentioned before? The fancy term is Neuroplasticity. But I like the layman’s word for it: rewire.
I rewired my brain.
I have always been naturally fiscally conservative and risk adverse in spending because I have never had much money, but being frugal is different from saving which is deliberate and proactive. When you’re frugal you clip coupons, drive the extra mile for a cheaper brand of soap or make your kids wear hand-me-downs. A saver takes all the extra pennies and puts them away, in a jar, in a savings account, or in my case an envelope, and walks away. Period.
I am famous among my friends for my “Envelope Savings” method, which is so fierce that one year it allowed me to quit my job and for four months solely focus on the novel I was writing; allowed me to quit my job and take an apartment in Paris and travel Europe for two months for my fortieth birthday, and allowed me to start Noir A Go Go, a black pinup girl gift and accessories company, all while remaining completely debt free on the tips of a bartender in a small restaurant in expensive New York City.
Despite growing up in a household that ardently ascribed to the “You can’t take it with you” school of thought and truly enjoying the finer things in life, I was able to rewire my brain to enjoy delayed gratification to become the Sting of Saving instead of Tantric Sex.
A lot of people don’t make it to the promised land but it’s not simply from a lack of will. Dr. Gordon says,
“[…] everyone has chosen immediate gratification over delayed gratification, and vice versa, at some point in his or her life. Therefore, intertemporal choice is an episodic event, not a litmus test for determining character. This is important because we become what we think we are. Stigmatizing ourselves because of our neuro-disposition is not useful and counterproductive to achieving our goal.”
We’ve all been there, right? We meant to save a hundred bucks that month and only saved thirty so we said F-it, might as well blow the thirty on popcorn and a movie and start again some other time…or not.
But I, Dr. Gordon, and I would bet next month’s automatic savings deposit, Oprah, believe if you listen with you heart and work with your brain, you can overcome the hardwired habit of spending without saving.
“To accomplish this, the brain must detect rewards, determine availability and accessibility, learn to predict future rewards based on past experience, establish reward value, use reward information to learn, choose, prepare and execute goal-directed behaviors,” says Dr. Gordon.
In other words, set a goal, make a plan, and then put it out of mind the way you do that last piece of cake Sunday night before the new diet begins. And then do it again. It’s hard. There has been many a time when I have not met my savings goal. I look at my accounts now and they aren’t nearly what I think they should be but I put a little bit more in each month anyway and walk away. Period. And I feel good. Really good. Don’t believe me, then take my financial advisor’s word for it.
Matthew A. DelPriore, Director of Financial Planning for Fortis Lux Financial, has thirteen years of experience and says that “People are people. I have some clients who are still great savers, and others that are poor.” This sounds ominous but then he concedes something very important,
“Sometimes it [saving] breeds more confidence. People feel a sense of accomplishment. I see this more often when a short term goal is reached. […] Reminding people of why they are saving is so important…The goal needs to be clear and distinct. It needs to have emotion and meaning behind it. That is the most important part about saving.”
I agree with Mathew, though I would argue that once saving becomes a habit a clear goal is less important. Saving itself becomes the goal because you have rewired your thinking to value it for its own sake like buying a beautiful negligée that only you get to see.
To the query: what is the sexiest thing about saving? Mathew responded,
“If sexy means happiness, then understanding how reaching [saving] goals will make a difference in your life and the lives of others.”
I call that the safety net. I understand when I save, when I have a safety net which allows me the freedom to choose the job I want, to refuse to be treated poorly in a job because I don’t have the money to walk, to cover an unexpected expense or help a friend in need without doing self-harm, I feel happy. And when I feel happy, I feel sexy. A savings safety net is like a piece of dark chocolate wrapped in a mutual fund with a guaranteed 15% annual rate of return washed down with a crisp Chenin Blanc with hints of passion fruit. Shiver me timbers, pure bliss.