It is no secret that as Americans, we avoid making financial decisions, even when it's not in our own best interest. You only need to look at the latest trends in household savings rates, or evaluate retirement plan participation rates. A common belief is that financial decisions are complicated and require thoughtful planning and skill. However, research exploring our reluctance to take control of our personal finances points to a different reason.
Research published in the Journal of Consumer Research by Jane Jeongin Park and Aner Sela explores the impact of feelings and attitudes on the reluctance to make financial decisions. Their findings suggest that "people perceive financial decisions—more so than decisions in many other complex and important domains—as compatible with analytical thinking and as incompatible with feelings and emotions. Consequently, the more people perceive themselves as inclined to rely on emotion in their decisions, the more they feel removed from financial decisions and show an increased tendency to avoid such decisions."
If you are someone who has uttered the words "I am not a numbers person" or "I am not good at math," then you may fall into the camp that tends to avoid making financial decisions. For example, if you rent a home and know you should purchase renters insurance, but you haven't done it yet because it seems complicated, this might be the reason. Or perhaps you are contributing to a 401(k) but you haven't made an investment decision and as a result, the money is just sitting there without being invested.
Park and Sela further discuss that our beliefs about ourselves, whether true or not, impact our tendency to avoid decisions related to money. This is intriguing because attitudes are developed and reinforced, but can be altered easier than physical traits.
While some people believe that being good at math is something you are simply born with, the fact of the matter is that personal finance decisions, like creating a monthly budget, do not require anything more than basic addition and subtraction. In fact, Park and Sela also found that these same perceptions don't translate into avoiding other important decisions like medical treatments. If you've ever had to sign up for health insurance, you know well that choosing a health plan is probably more complicated than deciding how to pick what to invest in. We just don't have the same deadlines or time pressures when it comes to personal finance decisions, even though they are also extremely important.
Another study, published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise by researchers from Ulster University in Northern Ireland and Swansea University in Wales, found that by periodically smiling during training runs, athletes' perception of fatigue was altered. In fact, the runners reported feeling less tired and were able to run further, faster, and longer. All it took was smiling.
The parallels between these studies are striking because they involve the attitudes and perceptions about ourselves or the activities we are doing. It is clear that if we develop strategies to trick our brains into not avoiding important financial decisions, then we will be better off for it.
As part of their research, Park and Sela found that by having study participants reframe a financial decision into a decision about their lifestyle, "seeing themselves as emotional thinkers no longer resulted in decision avoidance."
Brené Brown, the No. 1 New York Times bestselling author, often talks about how the stories we tell ourselves may be the most powerful. Her research explores the mechanisms and strategies that we can use to change our self-narratives as we navigate our daily lives. By digging into our emotions we may begin to understand the attitudes we have about certain aspects of ourselves (like whether we make decisions driven by emotion or data). These strategies can be used to help keep the negative thoughts about our financial abilities or interests at bay.
3 actionable ways to start making important financial decisions
- Reframe a financial decision so that it's about a future outcome. Rather than thinking about spending an hour to make a monthly budget, think about sitting down to save $1,000 for the month. This reframing alone was shown to make a meaningful impact.
- Realize that financial decisions are no more complicated than other decisions you already make about other things, like the decision about where to live or how to treat an ailment.
- Remind yourself that even if you believe you rely on emotion to make decisions, that avoiding financial decisions can lead to undue hardship for you and your loved ones.
Bonus: Involve your children in your financial planning and money choices so that they are comfortable with these decisions. Habits are powerful and it's a great asset to leave them. So the next time you have to make a decision about a 401(k), life insurance, or your monthly budget, make sure you think instead of the impact the decision will have on your lifestyle in the future. Picture the dream vacation or the beach you want to visit during retirement, and you'll find it easier to tackle a decision and start focusing on improving your financial situation.
If all else fails, start to smile before, during, and after working on something related to your personal finances. You might just trick your brain into enjoying it, and it could make all the difference.
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