Making a vision board could help save you money



Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts / ClassicStock

I’m not naturally good at saving money. I used to think it was a personal weakness, but now I understand it’s pretty normal. It’s not a natural impulse to throw away our paychecks for a vague, hypothetical future when there are so many beautiful things to buy here and now (not to mention the scary bills piling up). But because our social structure demands that we save money in order to live comfortably and not become a burden on our family and friends, we must force ourselves to do so. If only it was that easy.

Psychologists have spent decades and millions of dollars researching ways to get people to spend less and save more, with mixed results. The dominant and most widely tested theory so far is that people need more financial education to make better choices with their money – which they don’t. UNtrue, certainly. But the information doesn’t get you far. A simple Google search will tell you that you should be saving between 10 and 20 percent of your income, but the average American only saves 7.9 percent. Most of us know what we are Assumed to do, but due to a mishmash of circumstances, systemic issues, and normal human weakness, we can’t seem to do it.

But what if, at some level, we do everything wrong? What if the most effective money-saving trick wasn’t a matter of facts or math, but of embracing emotions – sappy, sentimental, hugging feelings (ironically, the same “weaknesses” that some researchers blamed for our bad financial decisions in the first place)? This is what a group of psychologists tried to find out in a study recently published in the Financial Planning Journal. The theory: that incorporating emotional attachments into savings goals and reinforcing those attachments with concrete visual objects would make people more likely to achieve them than just basic financial education. And it worked – surprisingly well.

To conduct the study, the researchers divided 102 test subjects into two random groups. One group took a basic financial education course with a question-and-answer session. Members of the other group were instructed to bring an article of “personal and nostalgic significance”, then talk about their savings goals and relate those goals to the article. They were then told to keep the article in a place where they saw it often – at their desks, for example. Three weeks later, the first group had increased their average savings rate by 22% – not bad! But the members of the second group had increased theirs by 78 percent.

Eager to incorporate this magical realism into my own life, I immediately tried to find an object that I could endow with my own financial responsibility. A jewel from my mother? My favorite pen? A special rock? Nothing seemed quite right. Discouraged, I asked Brad Klontz, one of the study’s authors, what his test participants had brought, and he made a list of stuffed animals, photographs, and small heirlooms. “Most didn’t really have a dollar value,” he told me. “The common thread was that almost all of them were related to family or loved ones. Overall, the object itself wasn’t that important – what mattered was the larger picture, or value, that it signified.

“The purpose of the object is to evoke images and emotions related to your savings goal, which usually involve people you care about, and then to help bridge the gap between that future and your current life.” , did he declare. “There is nothing more boring and inspiring than a savings account. Basically, you’re denying your current enjoyment for this amorphous thing in the future. But if you create these bridges and make them very visual, it will keep you on track even when it is very difficult to see the big picture. For example, he encourages clients to name savings accounts after specific things that are important to them. “If I have an account called ‘Ethan’s college fund’, it will be much more difficult for me to withdraw money from it to buy a boat,” he explained.

Of course, I was still hooked on what my object should be. So I called Meghaan Lurtz, a professor at Kansas State University who also worked on the study, to get her opinion. She reassured me that I could do a vision board instead – which relieved the pressure of finding the perfect item and could also be more explicitly linked to my goals (save for a trip to Sweden this summer, invest in at least one affordable item of art for my apartment, buy some great food to have dinner parties instead of going out to eat out, maximize my pension contributions for the year).

“A small action figure or whatever can work, but I think visualization boards are even better because they’re clear and obvious,” Lurtz said. “The most important thing is to highlight it, so that it reminds you every day that you are taking steps in the right direction.” Her own visualization board hangs next to her desk, directly above her computer. It includes photos of European cities that she would like to visit with her husband as well as photographs of her apartment (she said she hopes to increase her mortgage payments this year). “I also have pictures of universities there, because I wish I could pay for my daughter to go to school,” she said. “Whenever I feel like shopping online, it’s right there, reminding me of what’s most important and showing me where my money is going instead. “



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