6 Habits That Could Help You Get Wealthy, According to Psychologists

By Susan Shain
June 4, 2019

Research has shown that 40% of our daily behaviors are habitual. In other words, if you control your habits, you’ll have more control of your life.

When it comes to our finances, however, it’s easier said than done: Saving money requires overcoming millions of years of evolution.

“Our human brain is not wired for good long-term financial decisions,” explains Dan Pallesen, a clinical psychologist and financial advisor who is chief of investor behavior at Keystone Wealth Partners.

“We are wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain in the present,” says Pallesen.

Translation? If you want to build wealth — and stem the tide of Amazon Prime boxes arriving on your doorstep — you’ll need to combat your inner human.

Here are six psychology-based wealthy habits that work with (and around) your complex brain.

1. Determine Your “Why”

Before you can create wealth, you need to figure out why it matters to you.

Do you yearn to be debt-free so you’ll never get another collection call? Do you want to earn enough to go on a tropical vacation each year? Do you hope to retire early to spend more time with family?

“People whose financial goals align with their vision for their lives are so much more successful in achieving those goals than people who just try to build wealth for the sake of building wealth,” says Pallesen.

Before going any further, take out a piece of paper and write down your goals, dreams, and vision for the future. If you live with a partner, include that person in this exercise, too. By naming your “why” — and giving your money a positive purpose — Pallesen says you’ll be less likely to experience burnout on your path to financial prosperity.

2. Picture Your Goals

Remember posting photos in your locker of places you hoped to go, celebrities you wanted to date, and clothes you wish you owned? It turns out your high-school self was onto something: Literally picturing your goals can be extremely motivational.

So think back to the previous step, and surround yourself with visual aides that depict your goals and vision. We’re talking magazine clippings, inspirational quotes, postcards, and maybe even a Statue of Liberty snow globe that serves as a physical reminder of your dream of moving to NYC.

“It may sound gimmicky but you are actually training your brain to consider the big picture rather than focusing on the moment,” says Pallesen.

If you’d like to take a Caribbean cruise, for example, he recommends “taping a picture of a beautiful cruise ship in bright blue water on your bathroom mirror.” That, he says, “will be a continual reminder of what you are working towards.”

3. Prioritize the Future

Buying a flashy new watch. Upgrading your car when your old one still runs. Going out for lunch every single day. While these activities may feel good in the moment, they’re not doing you any favors in the long run.

Which is why psychologist Tamar Blank says that, before making any purchase, you should get in the habit of asking yourself if it aligns with your long-term goals.

“Every dollar spent should be an investment in yourself. One must make a conscious decision to prioritize long-term goals over instant gratification,” says Blank.

She calls this conscientiousness a “core characteristic” of people who build wealth.

Or, as Jennifer Thomas, a psychologist and co-author of “When Sorry Isn’t Enough,” puts it: “Wealthy families don’t go to Disney World now — short-term goal — and hope to start saving later. They live according to their long-term priorities and save a little bit all along the way.”

4. Pay Yourself First

Although consciously prioritizing long-term goals is important, this is difficult to put into action.

So, to sidestep your brain’s natural proclivity toward the present moment, experts say you should “pay yourself first.” This well-known financial concept involves automatically funneling money into your investment and savings accounts before giving yourself the chance to spend it.

Thomas suggests automatically transferring money from your checking account – each week, paycheck, or month – into your retirement and 529 plans. Wealthy families, she explains, “automate the process so it’s painless and they can’t mess it up.”

Pallesen, who supports this approach, also suggests automating when you get a raise.

“If you are suddenly making $200 more per paycheck, it is such a good practice to automatically have that $200 go into your retirement account and keep your lifestyle the same,” he says.

Otherwise, he warns, you’ll end up spending that money, and, ultimately, reverting “to the same level of satisfaction you had in your life” before what he calls “the hedonic treadmill.”

5. Name Your Savings Accounts

To make it a little easier to direct money toward your savings accounts, Pallesen suggests giving them aspirational names, like “Our Dream Beach House” or “Little Claire’s Education.”

“We are not naturally wired to save for the long run,” he says.

“Our brain loves immediate pleasure. But when you name an account, you are placing an emotional value on it and you are more likely to follow through in funding it.”

If your 529 account is named after your child, for example, Pallesen says putting money in it will feel good, because you’re “activating your feeling of love for your child through saving.”

Blank agrees. She says that thinking of who you’re supporting with your money can help you overcome your desire for instant gratification.

“Parental instincts and protective instincts are very strong, and can lead an individual to put their desires and even needs before those of others,” says Blank.

6. Create Accountability

Everything is easier with a buddy — so don’t be afraid to share your financial goals with the people around you.

“We are so much more likely to achieve our goals when we know that other people are aware of them. The thought of someone knowing whether or not you are achieving your goals is incredibly motivating,” says Pallesen.

While friends are a great start, you can consider enlisting professional help, too. Just like a personal trainer, a financial planner can provide education, motivation, and accountability for your goals. Or, if you’d prefer a free and tech-forward approach, try an app like StickK or a virtual financial coach like Charlie.

Wealthy Habits Build Wealth

Humans didn’t evolve to care about 401(k)s, compound interest and 45-year investment timelines. We evolved to care about today.

So, rather than getting upset about your lack of self-control or weak willpower, accept the fact that you’re human — and the fact that, to get rich, you’ve got to make your brain do things it doesn’t really want to do.

By sticking to the six tips offered here, you will hopefully build wealth and achieve your financial goals. Are you ready to give it a try?

Susan Shain is a freelance writer who's been covering personal finance for eight years. She was previously on staff at The Penny Hoarder and Student Loan Hero, and has also been published by Marketwatch and Lifehacker.

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