Money·3 min read

The Science on Successful Savings Habits

Stop watch
Design: theSkimm | Photo: iStock
January 7, 2021

The Story

'Work smarter, not harder’ doesn’t just apply to your to-do list. Learning a few science-backed tricks can help you pick up the pace on your savings goals, too.

I’m in. Where do I start?

By putting your savings on autopilot. Obvious, yeah. But it’s one of the best things you can do for your money. Remember learning that “an object at rest stays at rest” in HS physics? Shoutout to Sir Isaac Newton. That’s inertia, or the natural tendency to keep things status quo. Because, effort. 

It’s why you keep getting billed for that subscription you don’t use after your free trial ended. And why you’re less likely to stop saving after creating automatic transfers from checking to savings on payday. Finally, laziness pays off.

What else can I do from the couch?

Nickname your savings. Not just because it’s fun. This helps you establish an emotional connection to your goal. Which is key to making real progress. Some unsolicited inspo: ‘Oh, Sh*t Fund,’ ‘Gotta GTFO,’ ‘Treat Myself.’ 

Gimme gimme more.

  • Turn money into time. Instead of thinking in dollars and cents, translate costs into work hours. For example: if you make $20 an hour, think of a $100 gadget as costing five hours of work. That can make you rethink which buys are truly worthwhile.

  • Replace a bad habit with a good one. Bad habits usually make us feel good. So instead of cutting expensive habits cold turkey, create a new, better-for-you habit that also makes you happy. Experts call this technique ‘substitution.’ Go figure. Think: every time you make dinner vs. order it in, put $5 in savings.

  • Get visual. Psychologists have found that just imagining yourself hitting your goals can help you turn them into reality. Make a vision board or tape a pic of your dream house to the back of your credit card. That way, you’re reminded of what you’re saving for each time you pull out your wallet. Cheesy, but effective.

  • Don’t touch this. Next time you're in a store, try keeping your hands to yourself. Research has shown that simply holding a product increases your likelihood of buying it.

  • Phone a friend. Buddying up with someone else who’s working on a similar goal can help you reach yours. Cheer each other on (from a social distance). Or make it a virtual competition to see who can save more.

  • Treat yourself. But only as a reward for tackling a challenging money task. Think: popping a fancy champagne bottle each time you hit a milestone as you work up to six months' worth of take-home pay in your emergency fund. “Temptation bundling” like this can motivate you to do the hard stuff.


If it feels like the grass is growing faster than your savings, get in the right mindset with some Bill Nye-backed habits.

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