Updated on 01.29.16

10 Ways to Trick Yourself Into Saving Money

As adults, we shouldn’t have to trick ourselves into doing the right thing. Yet, most of us still do it all the time.

Raise your hand if you have ever hidden food from yourself, set your alarm clock a few minutes fast or even moved it across the room (so you have to actually get up to turn it off), or rewarded yourself for doing mundane chores.

You may not eat that bag of Twizzlers if it’s not sitting in front of your face, after all. Hitting the snooze button is a lot less appealing when you have to walk across the room every eight minutes to do it. And while you don’t want to do the dishes — like ever — if you promise yourself ice cream afterwards, you’re up and scrubbing before you know it.

Sound crazy? Rest assured, none of these strategies makes you crazy, nor do they make you lazy. Most of us trick ourselves into doing (or not doing) all sorts of things, with various levels of success.

10 Ways to Trick Yourself Into Saving Money

Let’s face it; adulting is hard. Sometimes the last thing in the world we want to do is the right thing – whether that’s mowing the grass, exercising before work, or whipping up a nutritious home-cooked dinner instead of calling up Jimmy John’s.

Sadly, the same principle applies to money as well. The perils of adulthood have a way of making saving money hard and spending money easy. Did I mention that Jimmy John’s delivers?

Here’s the good news: In the same way you blend vegetables into a smoothie and pretend it’s dessert, you can trick yourself into saving money, too. Here are 10 ways to save yourself from bad decision-making by forcing your own hand.

1. Institute a Waiting Period Before You Make a Purchase

Buying stuff you don’t need on an impulse can be absolutely tragic for your budget. But, what if you made up a random waiting period and convinced yourself to follow the rules?

Chris Huntley from Huntley Wealth & Insurance Services performs some variation of this strategy with his wife, but only with purchases of $50 or more. If any purchase exceeds $50, they have to check in with each other first. Strangely enough, this one extra step is often enough to deter Chris from going through the trouble.

“This could be as simple as a quick text message, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been deterred from buying something because I knew I had to run it by Brenda first,” he says.

The fact that Chris and his wife keep each other accountable might be why this situation works out so well. Regardless, this just goes to show that making up rules can work – but only when you’re disciplined enough to follow them.

2. Boost Your Tax Refund Through Payroll Deductions

If you struggle to save something meaningful each year, you can always force yourself into saving via payroll deduction. Morgan Quinn, a content designer for Tada, a new tax service from Intuit, does exactly this; she claims fewer exemptions on her W-4 so that extra cash is withheld from each paycheck.

“I end up with a nice little tax refund at the end of the year, which is usually around $1,400.00,” she says. Morgan uses this money to plan a trip or pad her savings account. “Some people say this technique is like giving the government a free loan, but it’s an easy way for me to save and it feels like free money.”

To that, most of us say, “Meh.” Who cares about giving the government an interest-free loan for a few months if you would blow those extra dollars on junk anyway? If you have trouble saving money, this simple trick could help you save with no effort on your part.

3. Transfer Coupons and Discounts into a Savings Account

If you’re constantly scouring the Internet for deals or whipping out your coupon binder, you could be saving boatloads of money on everything from groceries to office supplies. But, what if you actually transferred those savings into an actual savings account?

Eric Nisall from DollarVersity once tricked himself into saving money by doing exactly that. Each time he used a coupon or earned significant savings somehow, he would move that money into a special account. Over time, this helped him build a stash of cash that practically came out of nowhere, he says.

“So, if I went to the grocery store, or any shopping really, I took the ‘total savings’ from the bottom of the receipt and transferred it,” says Eric. “I transferred all of my overtime payments as well. Since I only budgeted for gross spending and regular paychecks, I didn’t notice any difference in my everyday account.”

The key here is remembering to transfer the money, then keeping your hands out of the cookie jar. But if you can make it work, the savings you glean from coupons and deals could really add up over time.

4. Remove Credit Card Numbers from Your Favorite Online Shopping Sites

Addicted to online shopping? Maybe it’s the convenience factor – or maybe it’s because you’ve made it so darn easy for yourself. By setting up an account and saving your card information, you’ve opened up the door to a world of financial hurt.

Michelle Diamond of FitNPoor.com found a workaround that helps her avoid impulse buys, although she had to find a third party to do the dirty work.

“I have my husband delete my saved credit cards on Amazon,” she says. “It gives me time to think if it’s worth getting up, finding the debit card, and typing the info in again.”

Nine times out of 10, says Michelle, the extra effort dissuades her from making an impulse buy — she’s too lazy or forgets about the purchase completely. Other times, she saves money by delaying purchases until she really needs something.

“I put off buying swim diapers for four weeks with this method,” she says.

5. Trick Yourself with a Zero-Sum Budget

Our favorite type of budget is the zero-sum budget. While it isn’t rocket science, this type of budget does something amazing: It forces you to hide money from yourself every month.

Here’s how it works: At the beginning of each month, you make a list of that month’s fixed and estimated expenses, tally them up, then transfer the amount of money you need into checking. All extra dollars you earn that month and the month before sit safely in your savings account – or “out of sight, out of mind.”

Joe Saul-Sehy of the Stacking Benjamins podcast uses this strategy to funnel more money into his savings account every month. He sets his pay up so that all new monies are transferred into his savings account via direct deposit. At the beginning of each month, he transfers what he actually needs into his checking account – per the zero-sum budget rules. This works like a charm, says Joe.

“My brain then thinks money’s already saved and I’m less likely to spend it,” he says. “It works far better than you’d expect.”

blindfolded with $20 bill

If hiding your money from yourself — keeping it “out of sight and out of mind” — is the only way you’ll save it, then so be it. Photo: House Hammer

6. Convince Yourself That You’re Broke

When your checking account is flush with extra cash all the time, you might be tempted to splurge on something out of the ordinary. We’ve all heard how extra money “burns a hole in your pocket,” and it’s absolutely true. If you always have extra funds at your disposal, you’re a lot more likely to buy stuff you don’t need.

Now imagine your checking account is hovering just over zero. Your bills are paid for sure, but the money left over for “wants” has been depleted.

If you actually have that money stashed in an account that is harder to get to, you might feel artificially poor at this point. Elizabeth Colegrove from Reluctant Landlord keeps her checking account near zero for this exact reason – it makes her feel squeezed financially, which results in almost no “extra” spending.

7. Maximize Work-Sponsored Retirement Accounts, and Live On the Rest

By now, most of us know we should be saving more for retirement. Sadly, far too many people aren’t stashing away nearly enough.

One way to remedy this situation is a corollary of the previous trick: Contribute the max – or as close to the max as you can – to your work-sponsored retirement account. That way, your employer will automatically deduct the money every payday, and you won’t have to lift a finger. It’s a lot easier not to spend that money when it’s socked away before you see it.

Colegrove says her family employs this strategy with her husband’s paychecks each month. “I automatically max out my husband’s retirement account before we see his income,” she says. “It’s harder to raid the account when it gets paid first.”

8. Transfer Raises Straight Into Savings

Hui-chin Chen of Money Matters for Globetrotters tricks herself into saving more each year by automatically saving every raise she scores at work.

“I keep spending constant, assuming I’ll never make more money, and save every cent of additional income,” she says. According to Chen, this strategy has helped her double her savings rate over time.

One way to take human error and forgetfulness out of the equation is to make this move automatic. Each time you get a raise, say at the end of the year, you could bump up the contribution to your work-sponsored retirement account by the same increment.

Let’s say you earn a 3% raise this year. To save that amount automatically, just have your employer take an extra 3% for retirement out of every paycheck from that point on. That way, you won’t get used to the extra income and start inflating your lifestyle, making it easier to continue living on your current salary and saving the rest. (What’s more, you might still notice a small bump in your take-home pay, since that 3% is withdrawn before taxes.)

9. Ask Yourself One Important Question Before You Make a Purchase

Have you ever gone into Target for bread and left with a cart full of random purchases? This kind of scenario plays out all the time, and with drastic consequences to our finances.

But, what if you asked yourself one simple question before you bought anything? What if you found one sequence of words that convinced you to leave Target without that cart full of stuff?

Lena Presley Gott of What Mommy Does found that asking herself one simple question is enough to talk herself out of most impulse buys. Before buying anything, she asks herself: “Did I need it yesterday?”

If the answer is no, then she doesn’t buy it. If she didn’t need it yesterday, then she probably doesn’t need it today either, right? And she probably won’t need whatever it is tomorrow, which makes it easier to stick it back up on the shelf where it belongs.

10. Trick Yourself with Money-Saving Apps

Money-saving apps are all the rage these days, and for good reason. Many of them help the average consumer save more money over time without a lot of effort in their part.

Michelle Jackson of the Shop My Closet Project says she does two things, and two things alone, to save as much as she can every month.

“I use cash and save my change, and I am using Digit to save in a pain-free way,” she says.

Digit connects to your checking account and uses advanced algorithms to help you save nominal amounts of money — $2 here, $5 there, when it knows you can best afford it — on a regular basis. And for the most part, it’s painless, which is probably why the app has become so popular.

Final Thoughts

In a perfect world, we would all do the right thing all the time. We would exercise five days a week, eat 11 servings of fruits and vegetables every day, and change the oil in our cars every three months. And of course we would all max out our retirement accounts, set up targeted savings accounts for everything from roof repairs to family vacations, and live a debt-free lifestyle from day one.

But we don’t live in a perfect world, and real life can suck sometimes. That’s why some of us sleep in our workout clothes: It may seem like a desperate strategy to force yourself to the gym at 5:00 a.m., but you can’t argue with the only thing that works.

If you need to leave your wallet at home when you leave the house, then so be it. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter how you convince yourself to save; it only matters that you do.

Being an adult is hard these days, so you have to go with what works. And sometimes, that means protecting yourself from your own worst enemy – yourself.

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