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What Science Reveals About Your Money Habits

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

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If an anthropologist were to have access to your bank account, what would they learn about you? Are you constantly carrying a credit card balance and spending beyond your means? Or, on the other end of the spectrum, do you miss out on life’s experiences because you’re constantly worried about your future nest egg?

Below, we turn to science for a glimpse of why we’re spenders or savers — and the role personality plays in your financial habits.

Your genetics can determine your spending and saving habits

When it comes to our finances, what is it about one person that makes them a spender while the other is a saver? Some studies say it’s learned behavior from your environment and upbringing, while other researchers point to genetics as a determinant for our financial choices.

A 2011 study titled “The Origins of Savings Behavior” found that DNA determines one-third of adults’ wealth and saving habits. Researchers examined the genes and spending habits of nearly 15,000 identical and fraternal twins from Sweden and noted that while “parenting contributes to the variation in savings rates among younger individuals,” the effects wane over time. By age 40, the spending and saving behaviors one learns from their upbringing revert back to their genetic predispositions.

According to the study, your genetics determine your self-control and how patient you are. This, in turns, impacts your money-handling habits. What this means, said Stephan Siegel, professor of finance and economics at the University of Washington and co-author of the study, is that while there is “a long list of small things that add up over time,” what’s instinctive is more important than learned behavior.

“It’s a little bit of a puzzle because people do think that, on the one hand, parents are important,” said Siegel, “but the evidence suggests they’re more important in terms of handing over their DNA and less important on shaping the environment for their kids.”

Use it to your advantage: Accepting that some behaviors are beyond your control is the first step to addressing what you want to change. But it’s not just about financial literacy, Siegel told MagnifyMoney. It’s learning to recognize your financial predispositions and managing them accordingly.

“Some of these tendencies are set early or at the point of conception,” he said, adding that thinking of spending habits as a biological issue can help you put a framework in place that protects you from your instinctual money habits.

This framework could mean coming up with a plan to save more early in the year, then using tools like direct deposit to pull from your paycheck and store funds safely in an outside savings account. It works for Siegel.

“It basically doesn’t even show up on my radar screen that I have that money and I can spend it,” he said. “Ideally, I don’t even see it in my checking account.”

If you feel pain during unpleasant experiences, you’re likely to be a saver

There is a region in the brain called the insula that “lights up” when you experience something unpleasant. The more activity or stimulation in the insula, the more “pain” you feel, likely resulting in you not doing the action again. This can influence whether you reach for another cookie or cigarette, are able to see disgust in someone’s face or have risky spending habits.

For the 2007 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, participants’ brains were scanned while they pretended to shop. Researchers later found that the more stimulation in the insula, the less likely participants kept spending. In other words, if spending money gives your brain an unpleasant feeling, then you’re less likely to keep doing it.

Use it to your advantage: What if you have a high pain threshold? Make spending as difficult as possible. Try drawing out cash so that you get out of the habit of spending on credit, and make sure you know where your money goes. In fact, tracking your spending with mobile apps has been shown to cut back on individual spending by 15.7%.

Also, as Siegel mentioned above, make a point to automate your savings, then leave the account alone. “If people have to actively think about saving, then they probably won’t do it,” wrote Shlomo Benartzi, a professor of behavioral decision making at UCLA, in a 2017 article for the Harvard Business Review.

Benartzi’s well-known “Save More Tomorrow” study with Nobel Prize laureate and renowned behavioral economist Richard Thaler found that people are more successful at saving when they commit to it in advance. In other words, when people set their future savings rate to increase annually with their raises, they’re more likely to stick to the plan.

In the study, Benartzi and Thaler proposed a savings program that allowed 21,000 workers at three different companies to allocate a portion of their future savings toward their retirement fund. The researchers followed the participants from the late 1990s to early 2000s and found that savings increased from 3.5% to 11.6% over the course of 28 months.

If you’re a master at delayed gratification, you may be a good saver

A series of experiments conducted on preschoolers in the 1960s called the “marshmallow test” has become an iconic example of the relationship between savings and delayed gratification.

For the study, researchers informed the participants, who were nursery school children at the time, that they could choose one sweet treat from a tray and could either eat it immediately or wait 15 minutes. If they were able to wait 15 minutes, then they were rewarded with a second treat.

The researchers found that 70% of the children chose to eat their treat immediately. Decades later, the researchers followed up with the same participants who were now adults and found that the 30% who were able to practice self-control were more successful and in better physical health overall.

However, in the years since the study, researchers have criticized the marshmallow test, pointing to various factors that impact a child’s level of self-control.

For instance, a 2018 study published in the Psychological Science journal, replicated the marshmallow test and found a strong correlation between delayed gratification and various controls like a child’s cognitive functioning, home environment and family background. Jessica McCrory Calarco, an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University, wrote in The Atlantic that “the capacity to hold out for a second marshmallow is shaped in large part by a child’s social and economic background — and, in turn, that that background, not the ability to delay gratification, is what’s behind kids’ long-term success.”

And this 2013 study published in Cognition journal noted that a child’s self-control abilities may be closely correlated to their “beliefs about the stability of the world” and whether a second treat would actually be available.

Use it to your advantage: Regardless, it makes sense that the more willpower you have, the better you can be at regulating your need to spend money. Psychologists Walter Mischel told The Atlantic in 2014 that what we should be getting from the marshmallow test are ways to curb our impulses. He recommends what’s called “if-then” strategies, saying: “If I want a cigarette, I’ll take a break to play a game on my phone instead.” So instead of focusing on delaying gratification, turn your attention to something else in order to distract yourself in satisfying ways.

Final thoughts

The research above can provide some valuable insight into your actions. It also highlights the importance of automating your financial decisions and tracking your spending — two relatively easy ways to trick yourself into making better financial choices.  Learning to work with your predispositions, instead of fighting them, will help you cultivate financial behaviors that work for you.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Vivian Giang
Vivian Giang |

Vivian Giang is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Vivian here

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Life Events, News

How Three Young Married Couples Manage Their Money

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

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The age men and women decide to tie the knot has been on the rise for years. In 2018, the median age for first marriages is 30 for men and 28 for women. That gives individuals almost three decades to establish deep-seated opinions related to finances, including how to save and spend their hard-earned cash and how they want their career to play into their future lifestyle.

While one partner may prefer to sock away savings and establish a sound nest egg, the other may see the value in spending money on once-in-a-lifetime experiences. In other words, couples may not always see eye-to-eye when it comes to the big financial picture. To offer some real-life perspective on these real-life struggles, we spoke with three young couples to learn how they handle their finances, divvy up expenses and save for the future.

Splitting expenses — except on old debts

Courtney and Ryan Ples have been married for seven years and live in Baltimore, Maryland. Courtney is 31 and works in sales at an educational technology company; Ryan is 32 and works as a consultant for Verizon.

As the assistant director of the Maryland Fund for Excellence at the University of Maryland, Ryan was used to hearing “no” when he called to ask for donations. And the reason was almost always the same — the person on the phone needed to consult with their spouse because they didn’t personally handle the finances or they needed both parties to agree before committing.

“It was frustrating that members of a marriage didn’t have the ability to definitively say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ without discussing with their spouse,” said Ryan. When he married his then-girlfriend, Courtney, in April 2011, the couple decided not to let themselves be beholden to similar guidelines. “If Courtney wants to donate to a political campaign or fundraiser, I trust she won’t make an irresponsible decision that would challenge our household financially.”

From the very beginning, the couple knew that establishing some kind of financial independence was crucial for their marriage. Since they have similar incomes, the Ples’ each contribute 50% of their take-home pay to a joint checking account that takes care of their monthly expenses, including their mortgage payment, house-related expenses, groceries, and anything that involves their three-year-old daughter (including a 529 plan for her education).

However, the other 50% of their paycheck goes into their personal checking account. From that account, Courtney and Ryan each pay the personal expenses they accrued before getting married, including student loans, car payments, individual credit cards and cell phone bills. Unlike many couples their age, Courtney and Ryan did not live together while they dated, and, as a result, did not have many shared bills before marriage.

While their approach works for them now, Courtney wishes she had had a deeper discussion about finances with Ryan before getting married. The couple started married life on one income — Courtney had just quit her job to move across the country — so Ryan organically took the lead in financial planning. As a result, he initially handled the bills and budgeting. The couple adopted the 50/50 system once Courtney started earning money, but Ryan still handles the majority of the financial decisions.

Courtney admits that, at times, she gets frustrated if she doesn’t understand something specific about their shared finances, but acknowledges that she needs to ask more questions.

“I don’t want him to feel like he has to carry all the weight for our family,” she said.

Saving for the future: Courtney and Ryan have a joint savings account, a joint IRA account, and individual 401k plans through their work.

In order to save money, the couple uses apps like Qapital, which acts like a digital piggy bank by rounding up transactions to the nearest dollar (or however much you allow it to) and storing it in an FDIC insured savings account at one of the company’s partner banks. Users can attach a goal to the account, which makes it simple to save up for a vacation or a down payment for a car.

“A couple of dollars each week adds up quickly,” said Ryan, who once saved $2,500 with Courtney in four months through the app.

The couple also expects each other to save on their own. Both Courtney and Ryan have individual savings accounts they fund with leftover cash from their personal checking accounts.

Establishing common ground: When it comes to additional income, like performance bonuses, the two discuss exactly how the funds are being used.

“I never would be like, ‘This is my bonus, I’m going to get golf clubs or go on a boys trip,’” said Ryan.

To make sure they are on the same page, the couple came up with three top goals for extra income: lowering debt, enjoying life experiences and increasing their savings.

“We’ve lived in debt our whole lives and we want the only debt left to be our mortgage,” Courtney said. “That’s where the majority of extra income goes. However, we also prioritize us a lot, even if that means lessening debt payments, because life is short and we want to experience as much as we can while we physically can.”

Soon, the couple will have additional income: Courtney will start earning a commission on top of her salary. Their plan is to have 85% of the commission check go into their savings account to help finance a future move, and the remaining 15% will go into their joint checking account.

Separate accounts, but an even split on expenses

Nichole and Cole Huber have been married since September 2018 and live in Tucker, Georgia. Nicole is 32 and works as an IT recruiter; Cole is 30 and works as a welder.

Even though Nichole and Cole Huber have separate bank accounts and credit cards, the couple makes a point to split joint expenses evenly. Through cash-transfer apps like Venmo, the two can make sure their contributions are 50/50, and they take turn paying whenever they dine out.

While the couple has discussed having a joint account when they have children or are saving up for a big expense, like home renovations, past experience has taught them to be cautious. Nichole was previously married and said her past marriage ended with a lot of “money attachments.”

“My ex-husband and I pulled our money together and lived a lifestyle that required both our incomes,” Nichole said. “He made substantially more than me so when it came to separating, I had to trust he would follow through on paying for things until we fully separated all our financial obligations.”

“I felt stuck because I didn’t have an account of money on my own and money was used to have power over me,” she said. “[My ex] would reiterate that he was still paying for me — rent on a house we had, the mortgage we had together, cars we bought based on our dual income lifestyle — so part of my mentality now is to live a lifestyle I can afford on my own and to have my own money saved up for the future.”

Although Nichole earns about 30% to 40% more in annual income than Cole, the couple decided together that they would split expenses 50/50 because their joint expenses don’t total up to much.

“It all comes down to being fair,” explained Cole, who said that when expenses are split evenly, “there’s nothing to argue about and there’s nothing to discuss.”

“If she wants to go buy something, that’s great,” he continued. “Same for me. The thought of asking for permission … it creates animosity around finances.”

Saving for the future: Right now, the couple maintains individual savings accounts. However, they each know how much their spouse contributes to their 401k plans and have agreed to start individual IRA plans in 2019.

“We just have an open conversation about what we’re doing,” said Nichole. “I don’t know exactly how much is in Cole’s banking account and he doesn’t know exactly how much is in mine, but we know each other’s credit scores.”

Establishing common ground: Before Nichole and Cole were engaged, the couple sat down to identify common financial goals. One was to purchase a house, and since Cole had enough savings at the time, he agreed to cover the down payment for the home.

“Most importantly, setting joint goals gives us confidence that we are both looking to follow the same path financially,” Cole said. “Gaining an understanding of how you both view and value money allows you to then segway into a conversation about financial goals.”

Cole explains that “discussing” and “compromising” is what led the two to understand their financial goals as a couple and in turn, the big financial decisions become “much easier because we are both shooting for the same thing and we understand what is important to one another.”

Splitting costs in proportion to their income

Tara and Jon Sims have been married nearly three years and live in Matthews, North Carolina. Tara is 34 and works as a probations/parole officer; Jon is 32 and is in a director role in the admissions office at a local university.

Although Tara and Jon Sims have been together for a decade and married nearly three years, the two have yet to open a joint bank account. While they aren’t opposed to it, their banks of choice aren’t the same — Tara banks with Wells Fargo and John is a loyal PNC Bank customer — and they haven’t felt a need to make any transitions.

The couple handles their money in much the same way they did at the start of their relationship. The Sims moved in together after eight months of dating — mostly because Jon moved from Virginia to North Carolina for work and Tara decided to leave her job to start a new life with him.

In those early days, the couple was living paycheck to paycheck. Although Tara had some savings, Jon wanted her to go back to school and finish her degree. The couple was a one-income household and money was tight. But once Tara got a job, they decided to split the bills in proportion to their income.

Tara is responsible for budgeting and managing the couple’s money. Every month, she adds up their expenses — a mortgage payment for the home they purchased together in 2016, utilities, joint credit cards — and comes up with an amount for Jon to contribute, which is usually about 75% to 80% of his paycheck. Jon’s contribution covers the majority of the couple’s joint expenses. He will deposit this amount into Tara’s personal checking account every month since the two never opened an account together.

After paying their bills, Tara budgets for groceries and moves the rest of the money into a savings account that, while technically in her name, is understood to belong to both of them. Jon has access to the account.

Jon earns about 25% more income annually than Tara does, so he feels that it’s fair that he contributes more. The money that he keeps in his personal account is his spending money, and he said whatever is left in her account after paying the bills is her spending money, as long as they’re able to put away $200 to $300 every month into their savings.

Each person’s spending money or “allowance” is used to pay for their personal expenses, which includes their cell phones, car payments, and the personal loans they both took out to pay off the debt they racked up when they first started dating.

Saving for the future: The money that’s in Tara’s savings account belongs to the couple. “I don’t really ask questions,” said Jon. “I just let her transfer it over. Even though it’s in her name, it’s our savings.”

The couple has 401k plans through their work. Jon said he would like to start investing once the couple has a little more money saved up, but won’t make any major moves unless Tara agrees to it.

Establishing common ground: The percentage that Jon contributes each month feels fair to the both of them. “It never felt like a 50/50 or 80/20 thing, but more of ‘We’re trying to get the bills taken care of,’” Jon said.

Key takeaways

Here’s the truth about personal finance: it’s personal. In order to have a successful financial partnership, couples have to communicate to make sure they see eye-to-eye. No matter what your financial situation is, identifying what is important to both people and establishing common ground is critical for a lasting happy and healthy union. The couples above have very different ideas on how to handle their finances, but there some areas that they have in common:

They believe the division is equitable. No matter what your financial situation is, each person needs to believe that the system is fair. In order for this to happen, communication is key, which sounds easy enough but can be quite tough when you’re balancing modern life’s busy schedules.

They have a system for bill paying. Whether each person contributes to an agreed upon percentage and/or dollar amount that goes into an account that pays the bills, like the Ples’ and Sims’, or each pay their share from individual accounts, like the Hubers, it’s important to have a system to make sure bills are taken care of. Additionally, designating one person to handle all joint payments may make life less complicated, but make sure the person taking on the extra responsibility doesn’t feel burdened.

They have financial independence. Each couple said it’s important to have access to spending money that they feel is their own. The amount of this “allowance” should be determined by both parties ahead of time and can be a percentage proportional to income. This can also release tension in a marriage, especially if the people in the marriage have very different ideas on how to spend and save money.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Vivian Giang
Vivian Giang |

Vivian Giang is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Vivian here

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Pay Down My Debt

A Procrastinator’s Guide to Managing Your Finances

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

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Many of us fall victim to procrastination from time to time. And when it comes to managing your finances, avoiding or delaying tasks can get expensive very quickly.

“Our lives are busy, and sometimes we don’t want to deal with it,” says Gerri Detweiler, education director at the business credit management website Nav and author of “Debt Collection Answers: How to Use Debt Collection Laws to Protect Your Rights.

In fact, Detweiler remembers the price she paid the year she pushed off renewing her business filings with the state.

“I didn’t get it done right away and paid enormously for it,” she said.

No matter the reason behind your procrastination, it can lead to a financial mess unless you move it to the forefront of your to-do list. Know that it is possible to transform into a doer – even if you’re a habitual procrastinator – by adopting the small changes below to achieve big results down the line.

1. Automate as much as possible

If you’re prone to procrastination, keeping on top of payments can feel overwhelming, especially if you have multiple lenders you need to pay every month. Consider automating your payments so you can avoid late fees and charges. Detweiler advises setting up text or email alerts so you know when payments are due and if there are any changes to the minimum payment amount. You can set up automatic payments with either the lender or through your bank’s bill pay tool; all you have to do is just make sure you have enough money in your account to cover what you owe.

2. Consolidate debt so you have fewer bills to keep track of

The average person has 3.06 bank cards and 2.5 retail cards, according to Experian’s 2018 State of Credit Report. Detweiler advises keeping two credit cards active at any given time: one with a lower interest rate to use for bigger purchases where you can revolve a balance, and a second credit card that is used for everything else, including earning rewards, that you pay off in full at the end of month. Then, put the rest of your cards in a drawer once they’re paid off and use them only occasionally to keep the accounts from being closed by the issuer.

If you have multiple high-interest credit card balances, you may be able to qualify for a balance transfer card offering 0% interest for a specific period of time. While most balance transfer deals charge a 3% balance transfer fee, which is added to the amount you transfer, it may make financial sense to move multiple balances to one card with one payment. Then, devise a repayment plan to knock down that balance as much as possible during the no-interest period as your payments will all be directed toward the principal until the 0% offer has expired.

Another option is to consolidate multiple card balances or other debts with a debt consolidation loan. Depending on how good your credit score is, you may be able to find a lender offering an interest rate lower than what you’re paying on your credit cards. The beauty of a debt consolidation loan is that you can use it to pay off your debts and then have one fixed payment over a specific period of time, generally two to five years. Of course, this will only help if you have the discipline to refrain from adding new debts or purchases to your now-cleared credit cards.

If you’re really struggling and over your head with your finances, consider talking to a credit counselor that can put you on a debt management plan.

3. Turn to technology to help change behavior

If you’re a procrastinator, relying on your willpower can be challenging. Thankfully, technology can help with that. Consider turning to apps or websites to help change any unhealthy behaviors and transform any bad habits.

For instance, you could download a robo-saving app, such as Digit, or enroll in a savings program like Bank of America’s Keep the Change, that help make saving as painless and out-of-mind as possible. Remember that small financial goals (like saving $5 per day versus $150 per month) will seem more achievable and can help lead to big improvements.

Other apps or websites aggregate information about multiple accounts, so you can see what’s due and what’s outstanding on a weekly or monthly basis, can also come in handy. Detweiler suggests Mint, Credit Karma, or the EveryDollar budget app. She also suggests setting reminders so you can remember to log in regularly. When you see the progress you’ve made in a chart or graph, it acts like a reward that is sent to your brain, which is key to long-lasting behavior changes, as journalist Charles Duhigg noted in his book “The Power of Habit.”

Whether your procrastination is the result of being really bad at time management or overly demanding standards that result in unhealthy levels of perfectionism, it helps to be aware of what’s causing any counterproductive, irrational behavior so you can determine how to do better.

For instance, if you’re really bad at estimating how long it’ll take you to finish a task, then make a habit of starting earlier than you normally would. Or, if your overly demanding standards stop you from getting started, then remind yourself before you start the task that “done” is better than perfect and think back to times that procrastination has proven harmful to you.

Changing behaviors, like managing your time better or reducing any anxiety you feel when tackling big tasks (like paying multiple lenders every month), can be challenging, but not impossible. Breaking things down into small, simpler tasks and using technology to help you as much as possible can set you on a fresh path to break unhealthy habits and lead to big improvements on your finances.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Vivian Giang
Vivian Giang |

Vivian Giang is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Vivian here

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