“Money is an extremely emotional subject,” says Frank Murtha, PhD, cofounder of MarketPsych. “It tends to create subconscious biases that we don’t realize creep into the decision-making process and steer us away from what’s rational.”
Identifying those unhealthy mindsets is the first step to overcoming them. Here are six common ones—and how to keep them from sabotaging your finances.
A dollar is a dollar, right? But sometimes, we treat money as though it’s not all equal—like blowing a tax refund or bonus because it feels like free money.
To counteract this tendency, set parameters ahead of time so you know exactly where your dollars will go and don’t overindulge. For example, if you know you’ve got a bonus coming, make a rule that you can spend, say, 25 percent, and invest the rest. “You still get the reward, but not at the cost of your better judgment,” Murtha says.
Then tell your spouse or a trusted friend about your plan. “It’s easy to let yourself off the hook,” Murtha says. “But involving a second person will help hold you accountable.”
Maybe you passed up the chance to buy Facebook stock, even though you had a hunch the company would be big. Or maybe you sensed your company’s financial troubles months before layoffs started, but didn’t look for other gigs. Now, you’re kicking yourself, thinking you knew it all along, but failed to act.
“Hindsight bias is the phenomenon in which a past event seem to be more prominent [or predictable] than it appeared at the time,” Murtha says. “It can lead you to engage in risky behavior to make up for action not taken.” If you’re filled with regret, you might buy into reckless investment opportunities or over-react to shifts in the market.
Inoculate yourself by jotting down pros and cons before making any big money moves. Not only will it help ensure a logical analysis, but you can look back at your decision-making process later, if remorse creeps in, and give yourself credit for doing the best you could based on the info at hand.
“Live in the now” is great when you’re doing yoga or hanging out with your friends or family. But leaning into your brain’s wiring for short-term pleasure can wreck your financial life.
“The key to competing against the strong pull of your present emotions and motivating yourself to save is to feel it in your heart, not just your head,” Murtha says. “You need to go beyond simply visualizing your goals, and allow yourself to form an emotional attachment to them.”
Murtha suggests a technique he calls the mental slideshow. “Create a vivid slideshow of what you want your life to be like,” Murtha says. “Let that seep into your soul and have some staying power.”
It’s no surprise that many of us would rather bury our heads in the sand than deal with stressors like overdue bills, debt and filing taxes. “Recoiling from uncomfortable financial information is a coping mechanism,” says Certified Financial Planner Richard Kahler, president of Kahler Financial Group. “The majority of people are wired to flee from difficult emotions.”
While we know that ignoring problems only makes them worse, Kahler explains that this flight instinct is embedded deep in our limbic system (the most primal part of our brain), meaning it’s hard to change.
Your best bet for breaking free is to acknowledge your ostrich-like tendencies, and consider seeking expert intervention—or enlisting a friend as an accountability partner—to help you devise a plan to attack the issue head-on.
You nailed a job interview, but the employer low-balls you. Don’t fall prey to “anchoring,” when you undersell yourself in negotiations because you’re influenced by the initial offer.
“Anchoring happens because we might be hesitant to argue with an authority figure, like the hiring manager,” Kahler says. “Low self-esteem can also play a part—we begin to question our value.” What’s more, if you’re underpaid at your current job, that can shape how you (and others) assess your worth. In fact, this effect can be so strong that some states have banned managers from asking about previous compensation.
The fix? Know your market value so you can make a fact-based case for the salary you want. And remember the first offer is a starting point.
Maybe you click on Instagram ads while scrolling before bed, splurge on $14 cocktails after work or over-buy at the grocery store on your way home. Chances are, you’re experiencing the effects of decision fatigue.
According to research, the more choices you face, the harder it becomes to make reasonable economic judgments. Turns out, decision-making is like a muscle: Just like you run slower and sloppier at the end of a long treadmill session, your ability to make wise decisions depletes after making a series of small choices (white or grey shirt?).
When you have a major decision on the horizon, tackle it in the morning, when you’re sharpest. And to protect yourself from impulse buys, eliminate as many inconsequential choices as you can. Wear a work “uniform,” take the same route to the office every day and don’t agonize over what to cook for dinner.