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What Science Reveals About Your Money Habits

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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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How to File Taxes as an Immigrant

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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Two recurring themes have dominated the news cycle over the past few years: immigration and taxes. While these may seem like entirely separate issues at first glance, immigrants do pay federal income taxes — and face a variety of unique challenges in the process, including dealing with language barriers and learning to file for the first time.

To help make filing your taxes as an immigrant a little easier, here’s an overview of who needs to file, how to file for the first time and where you can turn for help.

Who files taxes?

Citizens aren’t the only ones who pay taxes in the U.S. Immigrants who are authorized to work in this country are required to pay the same federal and state income taxes that citizens do, and undocumented immigrants pay billions of dollars in taxes each year — often for public benefit programs that they are unable to use.

Filing requirements depend on whether you are considered a nonresident alien or a resident alien.

Resident aliens

A resident alien must meet one of two tests:

  • Green card test. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services issued you an alien registration card, also known as a “green card,” which allows you to permanently live in the U.S. as an immigrant.
  • Substantial presence test. You must be physically present in the U.S. for at least:
    • 31 days during the current year, and
    • 183 days during the three-year period that includes the current year and the two years immediately before that. (You can read more about how days of presence are determined here.)

Resident aliens follow the same filing requirements as U.S. citizens.

Nonresident aliens

If you are not a U.S. citizen and don’t meet either of the tests to be considered a resident alien, you are considered a nonresident alien.

As a nonresident alien, you must file a tax return if you own a business in the U.S. or have U.S. income and did not have enough tax withheld by your employer. You may also want to file an income tax return to receive a refund of tax withheld.

What’s a W-4?

If you work in the U.S., your employer should ask you to complete Form W-4, which is used to determine the correct amount of tax to withhold from your pay.

Form W-4 includes worksheets to help you determine how many “allowances” you should claim. Each allowance reduces the amount held from your paycheck. You get one allowance for yourself, one for your spouse, and one for each dependent you claim on your tax return.

You can complete a new Form W-4 at any time, and it’s a good idea to submit a new one to your employer anytime your tax situation changes, such as if you get married or divorced or have a new baby. Adjusting your withholding can help prevent having too much or too little tax withheld.

Rather than relying on the worksheets included with Form W-4, you may want to use the IRS’s Withholding Calculator.

How to pay U.S. taxes

In some countries, the government withholds tax from your paycheck, and that’s the end of your tax filing requirements. In the U.S., it’s more complicated. Here’s an overview of what you’ll need to file a tax return.

SSN or ITIN

To pay taxes in the U.S., you will either need a Social Security number (SSN) or an individual taxpayer identification number (ITIN).

Noncitizens authorized to work in the U.S. by the Department of Homeland Security can apply for a Social Security number in their home country before coming to the U.S. or by visiting a Social Security office in person. You will need to complete Form SS-5, Application for a Social Security Card, and provide documentation to prove your identity, work-authorized immigration status and age. You can learn more about the acceptable documentation here.

If you are not eligible for an SSN, you can apply for an ITIN by filling out Form W-7, Application for IRS Individual Taxpayer Identification Number and submitting it to the IRS along with documentation proving your identity and foreign status. The Instructions for Form W-7 include a list of acceptable documents and instructions for submitting your application.

Which tax forms to file

The tax forms you’ll use to file your tax return depend on whether you are a resident alien or a nonresident alien.

Resident aliens use the same tax form as citizens: Form 1040, U.S. Individual Income Tax Return. Generally, Form 1040 is due on April 15 of the following year. However, if you are living and working outside of the U.S. on April 15, you are given an automatic extension to June 15. You can request a longer extension, until Oct. 15, by filing Form 4868, Application for Automatic Extension of Time to File U.S. Individual Income Tax Return.

Nonresident aliens file using Form 1040-NR, U.S. Nonresident Alien Income Tax Return. Form 1040-NR is also due on April 15 of the following year, but taxpayers who are not living and working in the U.S. on that date have until June 15 to file. You can request an extension to October 15 by submitting Form 4868 by the due date of your return.

Reporting income earned outside the US

Many resident aliens and nonresident aliens continue to receive income from outside of the U.S. even after they begin working in the country. Resident aliens are required to report income from all sources within and outside of the U.S. on their tax returns, whether they are living in the U.S. or abroad.

However, you may qualify to exclude a portion of your foreign earnings from your taxable income — the amount you can exclude changes each year. You can determine your eligibility and the exclusion amount using Form 2555, Foreign Earned Income. You can also use the IRS’s Interactive Tax Assistant Tool to help determine whether the income you earned in a foreign country can be excluded.

What to do if you’re undocumented?

According to the Pew Research Center, there were roughly 10.5 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S in 2017, and 7.6 million of them are a part of the U.S. workforce.

Whether undocumented immigrants work legally under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) protections or work illegally with falsified or nonexistent documentation, they are required to pay taxes on any income earned in the U.S.

Many undocumented immigrants face barriers to complying with U.S. tax laws due to language barriers, difficulty understanding complex tax laws or fears that the IRS will pass their information along to immigration enforcement.

Later, this article will cover resources where immigrants can find help with tax filing. As for immigration enforcement fears, you generally do not have to fear that the IRS will share your application for an ITIN or tax information with immigration enforcement officials. The IRS is not allowed to release taxpayer information to other government agencies, except for providing information to the Treasury Department for tax compliance investigations or under a court order related to a non-tax criminal investigation.

Benefits of paying taxes

Filing a tax return and paying taxes to the U.S. does not entitle nonresident aliens or undocumented workers to claim Social Security benefits, but there are other benefits to filing tax returns. According to the National Immigration Law Center, paying taxes:

  • Demonstrates compliance with federal tax laws
  • Gives immigrants who want to legalize their immigration status and become a citizen an opportunity to prove they have “good moral character”
  • Document work history and physical presence in the U.S.
  • Claim certain tax benefits, such as the Child Tax Credit
  • Claim insurance premium tax credits for children who are U.S. citizens

Where to find help

The IRS’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program helps taxpayers who cannot afford traditional tax preparation service, need translation assistance or need help applying for an ITIN. The IRS trains and certifies volunteers to provide free basic tax return assistance to individuals.

You can locate a VITA site by visiting http://irs.treasury.gov/freetaxprep/ and entering your ZIP code. Before visiting a VITA site, you may want to review Publication 3676-B (available in English and Spanish) to verify the services provided by VITA and check out the IRS’s What to Bring page to ensure you have all of the required documents and information volunteers will need to help prepare your return and apply for an ITIN, if necessary.

If you prefer to handle tax filing on your own, check out our recommendations for tax filing software.

The bottom line

Working through the forms required to apply for an ITIN and prepare a tax return can be daunting, but seeking help and overcoming the barriers to complying with U.S. tax law is important. If you plan to seek citizenship down the road or someday appear in front of an immigration judge, the fact that you’ve dutifully filed income tax returns while you lived and worked in the country can help make a stronger case for you to remain in the country.

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.

Janet Berry-Johnson
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Janet Berry-Johnson is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Janet here

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Financial Therapy: What It Is and How to Know if You Need It

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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Whether you’re stressing over paying bills or spending money to make yourself feel better, anxiety and money often go hand in hand. Still, financial advice tends to emphasize numbers and strategies, not the root cause of money concerns.

Financial therapy is a holistic process that enlists both therapeutic and financial methods to help you transform your relationship with money. Here’s how to tell whether or not it might be the right move for you.

What is financial therapy?

The Financial Therapy Association was born out of the 2008 financial crisis, which left many Americans feeling totally hopeless and out of control with their money — a kind of trauma that went deeper than traditional financial counseling could heal. Researchers and practitioners from both the mental health and business fields teamed up shortly after the crash to create a unique, new practice that combines the best aspects of both disciplines.

By late 2009, the Financial Therapy Association, or FTA, was officially recognized as a nonprofit corporation, and the group held its first annual conference in September of 2010. Today, the association offers a variety of tools for both consumers and professionals looking to participate in this unique practice, and also offers a searchable database for finding financial therapists by state.

The association defines financial therapy as “a process informed by both therapeutic and financial competencies that helps people think, feel and behave differently with money to improve overall wellbeing through evidence-based practices and interventions.”

In short, just like regular therapy, it helps you get your head on straight — except in this case, it’s particularly concerned with financial matters. Many financial therapists are also licensed family or marriage counselors, so you can take it on solo or with a partner.

5 signs you need a financial therapist

So, how can you tell if financial therapy is right for you?

Chances are, almost anyone could benefit from professional coaching… but if these scenarios sound familiar, you might want to take finding professional help more seriously.

1. Your relationships are strained, and money’s always the reason. If you’re constantly fighting with your spouse (or other relatives or family members) about money matters, a financial therapist can help you find productive ways to navigate your relationships.

2. You’re depressed or anxious about your money in a way that’s impacting your wellbeing. While money can be a stressful topic for anyone from time to time, if it’s ruling your life, a therapist can help you find new behavioral patterns. Whether it’s the emotional toll of debt or the stress of saving a workable nest egg, a financial therapist can offer both mental and monetary tactics to help you tackle the problem.

3. You know the steps you need to take, but can’t quite seem to make them happen. Whether it’s balancing your budget or paying down debt, if you can’t make your behavior match your financial plan, a financial therapist could have the answer.

4. You find yourself lying about money and hiding your excessive or emotional spending. These kinds of behaviors can wreak havoc on your wallet, not to mention your relationships, and may be based in compulsion. A financial therapist can help you develop alternative relaxation tactics so you can overcome your emotional splurges without doing damage to your nest egg.

5. Thinking about your financial future is leading to unexpected emotions or creating family tension. As important as estate planning may be, it can also be a difficult and emotional experience. After all, it means thinking seriously about the reality of your own death. And divvying up your stuff can lead to difficult conversations, particularly if you have a blended family or strained relationships. A financial therapist can help you work through all that emotional baggage and offer helpful communication tactics.

Do you need a financial therapist and a financial advisor?

There’s no specific set of certifications or degrees a professional must have to be a member of the Financial Therapy Association — so each individual counselor is just that: an individual. He or she may lean more heavily toward one side of the professional aisle or the other, and finding the right fit could take some trial and error.

For instance, if you’re mostly concerned with the how-to part of financial advisement, like figuring out the difference between a Roth IRA and a traditional IRA or the best way to tackle credit card debt, a plain-old financial advisor can probably help you, but so could a financial therapist who works primarily as an advisor or wealth management professional.

On the other hand, if you’re really digging into the emotional side of your financial landscape, finding a financial therapist who is a mental health professional first can help you tackle those struggles, while also laying the framework for solid monetary planning and behavior down the line. A financial therapist who identifies more strongly with the clinical counselling part of their job title may also be able to help you in other aspects of your mental health, if you’re struggling with matters beyond your money.

The bottom line is, there’s no one approach that’s right for everyone — and, just like dating, you’ll definitely want to shop around. Whether you hire a financial therapist, a financial advisor or both, when you’re talking about people who are going to advise you on matters as important as your financial future, getting along well is key. It’s worth making several calls and sitting through a few introductory interviews to make sure you’ve found a good fit.

How to find a financial therapist

If financial therapy sounds like it might be a fit for you, there are some wonderful resources available from the Financial Therapy Association to help you find and hire a professional. For instance, it offers a great database of financial therapists that’s searchable by both name and state.

Of course, since it’s such a new field, financial therapists are relatively few and far between — and you may find there’s not one in your area. Several states on the list have zero names listed beneath them (so far, anyway).

Fortunately, the internet makes it possible to do financial therapy work at a distance, and many professionals do just that. If you find someone whose credentials, focus and basic methodologies you like, you can reach out to them directly to see if they’d be able to perform therapy via Skype or phone call. You can also check out the specific “at a distance” list available via the FTA database. The association also offers monthly online webinars and other educational tools to start the process on your own if you’re not quite ready to hire a professional.

The bottom line

Financial therapy can be a great way to help alleviate your anxieties and fears about financial matters, or to help you find ways to break money-related habits you just can’t seem to knock out on your own. And as with any type of therapy, seeking out professional help is anything but a sign of weakness. Money touches all of our lives and has a huge impact on our lifestyles, so it makes sense that it’s a wildly emotional topic. So if financial therapy sounds like it might be a fit for you, don’t be afraid or ashamed to reach out. If anything, recognizing you need help makes you that much stronger — and both your brain and your bank account will thank you for it.

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.

Jamie Cattanach
Jamie Cattanach |

Jamie Cattanach is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Jamie here