Low savings account? Blame your brain

One in three Americans has saved less than $5,000 for retirement.

With the unemployment rate lower than it’s been in 18 years, most Americans are hard at work, yet they still have a paucity of savings.

One in three Americans has saved less than $5,000 for retirement. Moreover, the personal savings rate has dropped to less than 3% of disposable personal income at the close of 2017, suggesting that even for those who can afford it, saving is still in short demand.

If it is not our work ethic or ability to earn money, then why is saving so difficult?

While many complex factors are at play, a new study from our laboratory at Cornell University suggests that, to some degree, we may blame it on bias inside our brain.

Our experimental studies show that, even when earning and saving are equally available to us, there is an earn-first-save-later bias. In our study, that bias was so powerful that it warped participants’ perception of time to suit the brain’s earn-first-save-later priorities.

With our postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Kesong Hu, we examined our savings instincts by creating two different experiments using the same participants in which they could earn or save money.

In the first, participants saw a color on a computer screen that flashed quickly. Some colors corresponded with earning money, and some colors corresponded with saving money, but the participants didn’t know what each color meant. They had about half a second to tell us which color they saw. If they responded correctly, we told them whether they earned money or saved money.

Participants quickly learned that one color earned them money, and they would add it to their account, and another color saved their money by preserving their earnings for a later time. Yet another color did neither. In this experiment, 87.5% of the participants chose to earn more than they saved, mirroring our microeconomic predicament.

In the second experiment, participants saw two colors presented at a time. They might first see red, for instance, and 20 milliseconds later see blue. They had to tell us which color they saw first. Again, they didn’t know which color meant earning and which meant saving. But because of the association they had developed from the first experiment — that one color led them to save and one color led them to earn — even if a saving color appeared first, they were 75% more likely to say they saw an earning color first.

The bottom line is this: When given equal opportunities to earn or save, our brains do not prioritize saving. This means that even without bills to pay, our brains move us away from working for or even seeing opportunities for saving.

Our findings are alarming for several reasons. First, they indicate that we have an anti-saving bias that is so strong it warps our ability to attend to and perceive time accurately. If it can do that, then the save-later bias could have serious consequences for our bank accounts. When presented with opportunities to save, our brain may be blind to them. Over the years, our brain’s compounding disinterest in saving has long-term consequences for future wealth.

Our well-being and health are also at risk. Our default saving strategy is to just earn more: Ask for that raise, put in more hours at work, change jobs to one we might like less but pays more, or even take on an additional one. Not only does this take a personal toll, but it also strengthens our already misplaced emphasis on earning over saving. We flex the brain’s earning muscle over and over while letting our saving muscle atrophy.

Just as earning or saving potential is learned in our experimental economic game, we believe our pro-earning and anti-savings bias is learned. That’s good news, because if we’ve learned it, then we can unlearn it.

A surprising solution may be found in focusing more on the present to save for the future. Rather than thinking of the future self as the one that needs savings, we should bring the present and future self together. Such mindful finances could restore the needed balance between earning now and saving for later.