NEW YORK (MainStreet) — It’s no secret that many households struggle with saving money, but one behavioral economist thinks he knows why – and how to fix it. As it turns out, it all has to do with a banana and a piece of chocolate.
When asked if they would prefer to have a banana or a piece of chocolate for a snack a week from now, three-quarters of people say they would pick the healthier option, according to one survey cited by the economist Shlomo Benartzi in a recent TED Talk, an online video series focused on innovative ideas. Yet when researchers checked in with the respondents a week later, the numbers flipped. Only 30% actually ended up eating the banana, while the rest succumbed to the power of chocolate.
This lack of self-control is also what derails our intentions to save rather than spend.
“Self-control is not a problem in the future, it’s only a problem now when the chocolate is next to us,” Benartzi says in the video above. “We think about saving, we know we should be saving, we’ll do it next year, but today, let us go and spend.”
As Benartzi points out, it’s easy enough to say we’ll save more in the future, but when the moment comes to act, we feel what psychologists refer to as loss aversion. Put simply, it’s that painful feeling of having something taken away with little to show for it, which in this case is your extra spending money.
To make matters worse, Benartzi argues that options such as 401(k)s – which are supposed to encourage saving – are often either unavailable or they come with so many choices employees end up ignoring the option altogether.
In the late 1990s, Benartzi and another economist decided to address these issues by coming up with a solution for savings: encourage workers to automatically increase their savings in the future rather than dealing with in the present. The two economists went to a midsize company in the Midwest, where employees complained of struggling to pay their bills, and asked those workers to set aside three percentage points more of their salary each time they got a raise. This way, workers would be able to save more money and still have more money to spend.
The solution proved incredibly effective. Those workers who agreed to the plan ended up quadrupling the percentage of their salary that they saved between 1998 and 2002.
Seth Fiegerman is a staff reporter for MainStreet. You can reach him by e-mail at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @sfiegerman.