Personal finance experts often say willpower and delayed gratification are critical in saving more or getting out of debt. But new research suggests focusing on how much money you can save instead of how long it will take to get there and how much you’ll have to give up is more effective.
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Personal finance experts often focus on willpower and delaying gratification when doling out advice on how to save more money or get rid of a lot of debt.
But new research suggests a simpler, less agonizing tactic may be more effective: Rather than focus on how long it will take you to clear your balances – or what you’ll have to give up – instead train your attention on the money you’ll save once you hit your goal.
A study published in the journal “Nature” found people who hyper-focus on their earnings over time tend to be more patient. As a result, they’re more likely to forgo immediate rewards in exchange for a bigger prize later – which is often a key component of healthy savings and lower credit card balances.
See related: How to slay your credit card debt with ‘small wins’
When it helps to ‘see dollar signs’
For example, researchers tracked the eye movements of study participants who were offered a small amount of money right away, or a larger amount of money later. Studying people’s gazes helped the researchers zero in on the pieces of information that study participants found important and what they tended to ignore.
“We can see the savers’ decisions in their eye movements as their eyes jump back and forth between two dollar amounts,” said study co-author Scott Huettel in a news release.
The study found that people who resisted temptation and waited for the bigger pot of money tended to focus less on extraneous information – such as how long it would take to get their money – and instead focused on how much cash they’d get to claim.
According to study co-author Dianna Amasino, directing your attention toward dollar amounts may help give you the motivation you need to stay on track and wait for more money down the line.
“The way a decision is approached matters,” said Amasino in a news release. “Focusing on the long wait to accumulate savings can feel overwhelming. Focusing on the returns to savings and investments can be motivating.”
Surprisingly, the study also found that people who were more patient tended to make quicker snap decisions. People who had a harder time waiting, on the other hand, were more likely to think through their decisions more thoroughly – an exercise that’s traditionally thought of as helpful to people who are trying to meet their financial goals.
Other studies show keeping your ‘eyes on the prize’ works
The study helps support other research that’s found that keeping your “eyes on the prize” can help you avoid becoming overwhelmed by the challenges ahead of you and make healthier decisions.
A 2014 study published in Motivation and Emotion, for example, found that people were more likely to meet an exercise goal when they focused their attention on the goal itself rather than the work it would take to get there.
Focusing on a distant target can also help make a task feel easier, the study found. For example, exercisers who focused their attention on a single target and ignored other factors – such as how hard they’d have to work – not only met their goals more quickly; they also found it easier to exercise.
How to meet your financial goals by refocusing your attention
If you’re facing a big financial challenge, such as increasing your savings or whittling down a large credit card balance, try not to focus too much on how long it will take you to meet your goals or how much you’ll have to give up. Instead, try to pay more attention to what you’ll gain if you’re successful.
- Taking the time to quickly calculate how much you’ll save by making better choices could also help increase your motivation and help you reach your goal more quickly.
- For example, if you have a lot of credit card debt, you could use an online calculator to help pinpoint just how much money you’d have left over for other purchases if you paid down your card more aggressively.
- Similarly, if you’re trying to cut spending or save for a specific goal, you could come up with a specific amount that you want to save and then focus your attention on it.
The more you refocus your attention on your goals, rather than on the sometimes-difficult journey, the more patient you may feel as you move forward.