How to Turn Saving Money Into an Addiction

by Dana George | Updated July 21, 2021 - First published on Feb. 23, 2020

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With practice, you can create a habit of saving.

With practice, you can create a habit of saving. 

There is no question that shopping can become an addiction, a serious problem that can put your financial house at risk. But did you know that saving money can also become an addiction? Whether we become addicted to spending or to saving appears to boil down to how our brains operate.

The "happiness hormone"

Something happens when we feel pleasure, whether that pleasure is a result of spending money or saving money: Our brains release dopamine. This "happiness hormone" is triggered when we get a reward. For one person the reward may be something new they have purchased, while another will enjoy the same feeling when they save money or make a new investment.

And here's where addiction comes in: The better we feel each time we spend or save, the more likely we are to reach for that same "high" again.

So what do you do if you're a spender who would rather be a saver? Here are five steps you can take:

1. Curb your impulses

In order to train your brain to save money, you must first train it to stop spending impulsively. Unless you are going out to pick up items you need to live (like groceries), leave your debit card, credit cards, and checkbook at home. Take only as much cash as you're willing to spend. For example, if a friend asks you to go shopping, take enough cash to buy a coffee and go to lunch. Even if you walk into a store brimming with amazing sales, you won't miss out on anything important if you didn't need it to begin with.

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Cancel catalogs and flyers being sent from your favorite stores. Unsubscribe from emails and disable one-click ordering on your computer. Create stumbling blocks to spending -- what behavioral economists refer to as "friction." Often, slowing yourself down by seconds offers enough time to rethink what would have been an impulse purchase.

2. Arm yourself with facts

A survey by Ally Bank found that saving money has a bigger effect on happiness than the amount a person earns. Of those surveyed, 84% said that having money in the bank contributed to their overall sense of well-being and was more important than having a job they enjoy, getting regular exercise, or eating healthy foods.

Money can't buy happiness, but it can benefit your mental health by decreasing stress and increasing confidence. Having money put away offers choices. You can invest, travel, go back to school, retire earlier, take up a new hobby, or simply quit a job that is sucking you dry and find one that better matches your talents.

Just knowing these facts may not be enough to alter your brain, but knowledge can become your touchstone. Any time you're tempted to spend needlessly, ask yourself this question: Would I rather have this thing right now, or do I want to feel more secure and confident in the future?

The idea is to reframe the way you think about shopping. You can give your money to a company and allow the business to get rich, or you can keep that money and allow it to work for you. 

3. Reward yourself

What you're aiming for is that surge of dopamine. Finding the same satisfaction in saving as you once found in spending takes repeated application. Here are some ways you can get practice:

  • When you're tempted to buy something, tell yourself that you can have it in 24 hours if you still want it. Then, shut the computer down or walk out of the store. Sit with yourself for a few minutes and examine how you're feeling. You're likely to be proud of your behavior. As hours pass, you're also likely to realize that your life is perfectly fine without the thing you almost bought. 
  • Keep a journal. Jot down everything you decided not to buy. Make sure to include the amount you saved. At the end of the week, add those savings up. Again, how does taking control make you feel? 
  • Automate your savings. Ask your bank or credit union to automatically deposit money into your savings account each time you get paid. At least once a month, take a look at your account balances and watch them grow. Give yourself credit for being responsible. 

4. Learn about investing

Learn as much as you can about investing and how it can change your life. Fill your mind with all the reasons you deserve to be financially secure. The more you read, the more anxious you will be to invest in your future. 

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5. Give yourself time

You didn't become addicted to shopping overnight and you won't become addicted to saving overnight. Each positive emotion you experience, each rush of dopamine, makes it a little easier to do the right thing the next time. The goal is to practice until you learn to crave the feeling of satisfaction that results from socking money away in your savings account

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