Are you looking at your post-holiday bank balance with trepidation? It’s easy to judge yourself for being undisciplined with money, but modern life is expensive – and money, psychologists have long recognised, plays countless tricks on our minds. It gets tangled up with our emotions, so we spend in an effort to feel better, even though that usually doesn’t work.
It’s abstract, so we struggle to keep track of it: for example, studies show people spend more when they use credit cards because they make money feel less real. Even if you stick to a budget most of the time, just one or two exceptions a month – for home repairs, birthday gifts and so on – can mess up everything. Fortunately, you can use what psychologists have learned to trick your mind in the opposite direction, so you’ll spend less and save more.
Take advantage of the ‘Hawthorne effect’
In a classic psychology experiment, factory employees worked harder simply because they knew researchers were watching them. Likewise, make a note of every single expenditure (you could use a pocket notebook, or your phone) and you’ll almost certainly find yourself spending less.
Pay yourself first
It’s a cliche, but that’s because it works: if you possibly can, make sure some of your pay is automatically rerouted to a savings account as soon as you receive it. Once that money ‘disappears’, you won’t miss it; you’ll adjust psychologically to having a smaller amount available to spend. But, if you wait until the end of the month to save whatever’s left over, that might be nothing.
Don’t be too frugal
Being overly strict with yourself can backfire: we all crave a sense of autonomy, so when the rules you’re following are too severe, it’s tempting to rebel – even if technically the person you’re rebelling against is yourself. It’s no good saving a pound here or there if your rebellion is a £100 splurge. The best way to handle this temptation is to give in to it, but consciously: assign a modest weekly sum for sheer pleasure, then make sure you spend it.
Work out what it really costs
The finance guru Vicki Robin recommends calculating what you truly earn per hour – and to do that accurately, she points out, you’ll need to subtract money you spend in order to do your job (work clothes, commuting and lunches). Then, when you’re considering a purchase, you’ll know how much of your life you used up working to pay for it – and you might choose not to.
Oliver Burkeman is author of ‘The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking’ (Canongate, £8.99)