Spending

The mental trap that can keep you from making good choices with your money

Twenty/20

Talking about yourself feels good, according to a Harvard study — and it actually doesn't matter if anyone is listening. When you are disclosing information about yourself, there is increased neural activity in the parts of the brain associated with reward.

This wiring contributes to a mental trap that experts say can keep you from making good financial choices: the so-called entertainment bias, which refers to our tendency to focus more on things that are fun and socially rewarding.

Unfortunately, most of the time, "there is no kind of social or cultural capital that comes from quietly saving," Harold Pollack, coauthor of "The Index Card: Why Personal Finance Doesn't Have to Be Complicated," told Grow earlier this year. Telling people how much you put away for retirement this month is not as compelling, and doesn't foster as much community, as telling people you're going vegan because of climate change, for example, he says. And people would rather discuss accomplishments that make them seem more interesting.

Nearly half, or 44%, of people believe that personal finance is harder to talk about than religion or politics. Because of that awkwardness, a lot of people just don't do it and, as a result, a lot of vital information never gets shared, even in close relationships. Over 40% of people don't know how much money their spouse earns, for example, according to 2015 data from Fidelity, and over a third of American adults avoid discussing student loan debt, calling it the No. 1 financial taboo.

Taboo money topics
A recent survey found that more people are uncomfortable talking about their student debt than any other aspect of their finances.
Topics that respondents aren’t comfortable discussing
Social chart title
Note: Based on a survey of 1,006 U.S. adults aged 22 and older with at least $10,000 in investable assets.
kiersten schmidt/grow TD Ameritrade

It's not just that money is an uncomfortable subject to discuss, Pollack says. It's also that what's in your bank account can make for less-than-stimulating conversation.

"The right thing to do is so fundamentally uninteresting," he says. "Like making your savings automatic and putting it into a low-cost index fund and never touching it — that is the definition of boring."

How to avoid this trap and make smart money choices

There is an easy way you can overcome this mental and social trap, Pollack says: Find people you can talk with about money.

"One of the best ways to save is to have a peer group of people who are also savers and who reinforce that," he says. You'll get that positive lift Harvard researchers observed, which can bolster your good financial habits.

One of the best ways to save is to have a peer group of people who are also savers and who reinforce that.
Harold Pollack
professor at the University of Chicago

That's what Chris Browning found in 2017 when he started his podcast Popcorn Finance. "When I started the show it was because I wanted to talk about money more and I really liked teaching the topic, but I didn't know a lot of these [debt-free] communities existed," he says.

Now, he says, keeping up with the #debtfree community on Instagram and at conferences has helped him talk more openly about his money — like how he paid off $27,000 in two and a half years — as well as learn new strategies for budgeting, saving money, and becoming debt-free. "Knowing that you'll be in situations where you'll have these conversations and are expected to be just as open as everyone else gives you that kind of push to make sure you're handling things because you want to participate," he says.

One day, he hopes, money talk won't be so taboo.

"Your money problems weigh on you so heavily," he says. "If you can get into a space with other people who are dealing with it and get some advice here and there and remove some of that burden, it's a great place to be."

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