How to Save for Your Future Self: Engage Your Emotional Brain

By Amy Klein

If you've ever wondered why it's so tempting to turn window shopping into real purchases — and so tough to turn income into long-term savings — it turns out, there's a natural reason for this impulse.

For thousands of years our hunter and gatherer ancestors had little incentive to save. Wandering for food and shelter, there was no reason to lug around precious items like fruit, vegetables, grains, and meats for future use. Survival meant being able to consume, and become thrifty, on the spot.

“When you're talking about saving," Dr. Brad KlontzDr. Brad Klontz. Opens a new window in your browser, an Associate Professor at Creighton University's Heider College of Business, said, "you're asking your brain to do something it's not wired to do."

While this knowledge may make you breathe a sigh of relief (It's not just you!), understanding how we are wired can help us better plan for the future, turning short-term satisfaction into long-term, 21st century gain.

A lesson from our ancestors

The rational part of our brain is what separates us from animals, but it's the emotional part—the amygdalaamygdala. Opens a new window in your browser — that controls whether or not (and how much) we save.

It's this part of being human that makes us cry when we watch "Forrest Gump" and feel a sense of wonderment when we view Michelangelo's ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It's what makes us think fondly of family members long after they're gone, and save that first clay statue our kindergartner made for Christmas.

“The more abstract ideas become, the less motivated we are to take action — let alone, delay gratification," Klontz explained. It's because we care deeply about human suffering and appreciate the profundity of life that retirement and even regular saving can be too abstract to motivate us to take action.

Yet, this is where we find a silver lining (for our retirement funds). This capacity to invest meaningfully in people and things, however abstractly, can be retrained to invest in the emotional elements of long-term saving.

Engaging the emotional brain

Klontz and his team at Creighton University have made it their mission to help people learn to activate their emotional brain — to help them feel the long-term benefits of saving. 

In one of Dr. Klontz's newest studies, he tested people's ability to save when they were coached from a logical or emotional perspective. While the logical group was educated about the importance of saving, the emotional group was asked to bring in a personal keepsake, an item they saved purely for emotional reasons.

In the emotional room, Klontz asked participants to consider the values and emotions associated with their keepsake and tie them to goals for their future. For example, one participant brought in his grandfather's money clip, which held a connection to family, one of his core values. It also reminded him of a sense of safety and security, motivating him to save more for his own family.

“‘We wanted to activate the emotional brain to show them that the same reason they saved [a memento] would be the same reason they save for the future," he said. "This bridged the gap between present and future.’”

In the end, participants who had their emotional brain stimulated saved nearly 200 per cent more.

Naming the abstract

If there is one thing the study taught Dr. Klontz, it was the importance of humanizing the abstract. Especially for people who have a hard time connecting current habits to future rewards, Klontz recommends breaking savings accounts into specific goals — and naming them.

Naming a micro-savings account “European Vacation Fund," or “Baby Sam's University Fund," for example, suddenly turns an abstract concept into a tangible goal surrounded by celebration, adventure, achievement, and maybe even some champagne.

And herein lies the paradox: If being human is what makes it tough to delay satisfaction, it is also what can make us feel things deeply — and turn those feelings into motivation to save for the distant future.