Can I Learn To Save Or Are Some People Just Rubbish With Money?

We asked an expert to explain why that savings account is permanently empty

Can I Learn To Save Or Are Some People Just Rubbish With Money?

by Jazmin Kopotsha |
Published on

Those last few days before payday are pretty tragic. It's a couple of low-fi lunches as purchased from the reduced aisle at the supermarket the night before, public transport swapped for long walks to work in the rain and spending weekends at home in stubborn, disappointing solitude because, I don't care what anyone says, socialising always involves the dollar.

And then everything changes. You wake up on payday morning with a completely different outlook. You feel refreshed, optimistic and dramatically spennier. You forget the promise you repeatedly made yourself when you had a little sob by the cash machine the night before and instead of doing the sensible thing and not living as excessively out of your means as you did last month, you go ahead and arrange a big night out that you don't really want to go on, offer to pay for your mates because they really don't want to go either, and piss away the little cash you should've put aside for safe keeping with a few rounds of tequila and four hazy Uber rides in the name of a one night stand...

Money. It's the thing that makes things happen but also really gets in the way. It's one of the biggest, sneakiest things that'll get between you and the people you really care about and yet we're all quite happy to acknowledge (and socially terrified of saying otherwise) that there are far more important things to worry about, like health and happiness etc.

Now more than ever we're frighteningly aware of the role money plays in the workplace and how easily it's abused. Our generation who are underpaid and under-supported know only too well that, as it stands, many of us are never going to be able to afford to buy a house. Not on our own.

We know all the things. All of the really important things that cause us anxiety, make us have to walk to work and jeaopordise friendships when we 'accidentally' forget to send that mate the £15 we owe for the prossecco brunch we couldn't afford last weekend. But this concept of saving goes out the window in the time it takes to log into your mobile banking account.

I asked Nigel Nicholson, Professor of Organisational Behaviour London Business School if there's a reason why I, like many of my friends and colleagues, fall into this trap of cyclical spending, and by extension never really saving anything. He explaines that it's all to do with how we understand money and the role it plays in our lives.

'Money is interesting stuff because it’s kind of empty but also gets filled up with lots of things', he explains. 'The thing about money is it takes on more than just its objective value. That’s part of the issue. People make lots of quite irrational decisions about money just because of the way the brain is wired'.

'The thing about saving of course, it is part of the more general thing – are you able to put off for tomorrow what you could consume today. It is about time perspective'. For example, say you're living in a time of particular turmoil when (to put it quite dramatically) you don't really know how much time you have on your hands, you're going to want to consume what you have as soon as you have it. Professor Nicholson explained that you might not want to calculate the long term so your resources are used as soon as you have them. It's a sentiment I'm sure so many of us can apply to our outlooks around competitive job markets, unpredictable housing scenario and being part of a generation that learned to live by the #yolo doctrine.

We're here for a good time, not a long time, right? Fuck it, let's just have fun now while we can. Live for the moment and pray it lasts forever and so on. At least that's how we're stereotyped to chose to live in our twenties. 'But once you have an investment in the future, like children,' Prof. Nicholson adds, 'your attitude to money changes. So a single person and someone with children management of money is quite different because of that perspective issue.'

At the crux of our inability to hold onto money could very much be a personality thing. He says that a lot of it comes down to the circumstances we've come to understand and make decisions about what money is really worth. 'You need to look at somebody’s character and their circumstances and then ask why some people would save and some won’t.

'If we come back to the basic issues of personality, there are some people who are really anxious about the future and they’re a bit afraid of anything chaotic and the last thing they’ll do is indulge themselves. There are lots of people who refuse to spend money on themselves and do lots of saving. There are people who sacrifice their lives almost entirely to save for the next generation then the money just goes and ruins those people and ends up spoiling them. Some people who are very impulsive, pleasure seeking, money burns a hole in their pocket.'

And then if we delve right into those personality traits, we're likely to find those deep, psychological influences that affect the way we handle (or don't) our money. 'For some people, going shopping is a substitute for some other things, or spending money answers an existential problem about identity and meaning and what life is all about for you', Prof Nicholson suggests.

But where does that come even from? My thinking has always been that, well we don’t come crawling out of the womb thinking: ‘oh, when I feel a bit down I’ll go and spend my money’. I’d quite naively assume that I learned about retail therapy as a thing (aka my half-assed excuse for not saving very efficiently) through being far too easily influenced by what I see in films and on TV. But Professor Nevelson says it starts a lot earlier than that and goes a lot further than Carrie Bradshaw's poor financial decisions.

'Money has this capacity to take on all sorts of emotional values. Just as money can be spent on all sorts of thing, money can assume symbolic value. It symbolises value – your own value, the value of what you do, value of relationships (what are you prepared to give me to proud you love me) – were all suckers for it. The real game is the emotional game which is often quite profound.'

So, I ask, if the way we handle money is so deeply engrained in our psyche and symbolises things that we quite possibly never even realised, is it possible to unlearn the behaviour and actually have a savings account with more than the cost of a meal deal sandwhich? ‘Absolutely’, he says.

For some people it comes with age and the reorientation of priorities (such as kids and pensions and so on). And while it might take something quite significant to change our deeply formed attitudes and emotional understanding of money, 'I think it can happen very quickly'.

So, what is it that triggers your irrational, irresponsible spending? And is it fulfilling a purpose that you hadn't really noticed before. Because by the sounds of things there's hope for us yet. We just need to tackle that minor thing of re-understanding what money means and that while yolo-ing is fun at the moment, the reason you're probably worrying about your lack of savings in the first place is because deep down you actually want your financial future to be a bit more secure than the turmoil of right now is.

**Follow Jazmin on Instagram **@JazKopotsha

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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