When it comes to the pillars that will rebuild your finances, we’re all about reinforcing some of the most important savings goals. These include creating an emergency fund, paying down your debts, and creating a plan for the future: goals that, while important, can be somewhat draining and difficult to prioritize without the promise of immediate satisfaction. However, as new research has shown, putting a delicious carrot on the end of the financial planning stick may actually motivate some people to improve their financial health by leaps and bounds.
The Center for Financial Services Innovation (CFSI), an American consultancy and research group, investigated the impact of reward response on the savings cycle. Saving up to buy something we want can feel like a real win. According to the Center’s research, it’s the winning that matters to our brains, and what will help us stay motivated to save more and plan better in the long run.
Each time we anticipate getting a reward, our brains are treated to a shot of dopamine, the chemical that makes us want to repeat a pleasurable experience. In other words, we become habituated to the positive feedback our brains give us when we achieve a goal, financial or otherwise. The research by CFSI showed that individuals who made a habitual, planned pattern of savings toward specific rewards were four times more likely to have better overall financial health. The importance of being habituated outweighed factors like age, income level, and demographics, showing that we truly are wired to respond to the cycle of savings and reward on a neurological level despite vast differences in circumstance and nurture.
Focusing on small wins first is also often easier on people who have yet to establish a pattern of savings. Rather than telling someone that they must start from zero to save three months’ salary to cover emergency expenses – a considerable amount that many people would find daunting – it’s easier to get them to focus on smaller, personalized, rewarding goals. Whether those goals are to create a retirement plan or fund a long-awaited travel adventure, the likelihood of their completion shoots upward when savers engage with them on a habitual to achieve something that activates the dopamine response repeatedly and consistently.
We’re not suggesting that anyone overlook their long term goals in favour of simply tunnel-visioning from one desirable purchase to the next – and neither is the research underpinning the importance of reward response in savings. In fact, habituating yourself to the process of savings requires doing the exact opposite. It will train you to view each goal as part of a wider plan and give you greater awareness of the big picture into which your financial habits will need to fit in order to improve. The next time you’re staring down an intimidating savings goal, it might be the right idea to think of how to treat yourself to something that feels good in order to get climbing in the right direction. It’s not irresponsible or materialistic, as long as it’s within reason – it’s simply listening to what your brain needs!