Behavioral Finance: 16 Easy Ways to Outsmart Your Brain for More Wealth and Security

Your brain is not necessarily set up in a way that makes it easy to plan a secure retirement. You have cognitive biases – faulty ways of thinking that are unfortunately hardwired into your brain – that work against you.  Behavioral finance and behavioral economics are the study of these phenomena. Understanding behavioral finance and your natural cognitive biases can increase your wealth and happiness.

behavioral finance

Becoming aware of these behavioral finance tips can help you do a better job planning and saving for your retirement. Below we also offer specific tricks for overcoming each of the misguided thought processes.

Empowered Refusal: Say “I Don’t” not “I Can’t”

A study in the Journal of Consumer Research found that people who used the words “I don’t” versus “I can’t” – as in, “I don’t eat dessert” instead of “I can’t eat dessert” – were nearly twice as likely to resist the temptation of choosing unhealthy foods.

The researchers believe that using “I don’t” gives people greater “psychological empowerment” by removing the need to make a decision. “I don’t” gives the speaker control whereas “I can’t” denotes a sense of denial, regret and someone else being in control.

Applying empowered refusal to retirement planning 

Think about all of the decisions you make with regards to your finances.  A lot of those choices involve denying yourself something in the present so that you can have a more secure future.  For example, you want a new mountain bike, but you could also be saving and investing that money. To help insure you make the “right” choice:

  • Instead of saying: “I can’t spend money on a bike”
  • You could say: “I don’t spend money now that I am going to need in the future.”

Use the NewRetirement Planner to find out  how much money you will need for retirement and if you are saving enough now (maybe you really can buy the bike).

Loss Aversion: The Fear of Losing Money is Greater than the Benefit of Gains

As “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness” author Cass Sunstein, wrote, “a 5-cent tax on the use of a grocery bag is likely to have a much greater effect than a 5-cent bonus for bringing one’s own bag.”

Research indicates that people are far more stressed by the prospect of losing money than they are by gaining money.  In fact, some studies have suggested that losses are twice as powerful, psychologically, as gains.

This can make investment management particularly tricky. Loss aversion is why too many people sell assets when prices are falling. Further, you need to be able to take appropriate risk and sustain the potentially temporary losses if you want to ultimately achieve positive rates of return.

Overcoming loss aversion

Creating and maintaining an Investment Policy Statement can be one way to help you proactively make a plan for what to do in different economic scenarios, which can help you overcome the negative bias of loss aversion.

Know What Really Motivates YOU

So, as explored above, most people are risk averse.  But, not everyone.

The key to using behavioral finance to your advantage is to really understand your own motivations.  Goals can be framed as gains or as losses.   Which of these phrases is more appealing to you?

  • Planning retirement insures you won’t run out of money (loss aversion)
  • Planning retirement helps you maximize your wealth (gain)

Know what motivates YOU

When setting goals, try phrasing them in different ways – emphasizing the loss or the gain.  See which feels more motivating and focus on that!

Appreciate How Money CAN Make You Happy

In “Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending,” authors Elizabeth Dunn and Dr. Michael Norton explore how money can make us happy.  They report that you can use money to buy happiness by:

  1. Spending on experiences
  2. Making a point of treating yourself
  3. Buying time
  4. Paying ahead of consumption (the opposite of debt)
  5. Investing in others

How to let money buy you retirement happiness

Retirement is actually a big life trade of money in exchange for time.  And, the research indicates that retirement almost always results in happiness (except when it triggers depression due to losing purpose and vitality).

Learn more about how to use money to buy happiness.

Ambiguity Effect: Figure Out a Way to Know What You Don’t Know

Neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity. – Sigmund Freud

The ambiguity effect reflects a tendency to avoid decisions or options where unknown information makes it hard to predict an outcome.

Examples: When planning your retirement, you need to “know” how long you will live, future inflation rates, investment returns and other factors that are actually unknowable. Not being able to “know” this information can make planning feel ambiguous and impossible and many many people just avoid it altogether.

You might also fall victim to the ambiguity effect with investments – you might opt for bonds where the returns are considered safe rather than stocks which are more volatile but are likely to have higher returns.

Overcoming the ambiguity effect

One way to use behavioral finance to overcome the ambiguity effect for retirement planning is to assign optimistic and pessimistic assumptions – based on historic norms – for the unknowables. Using best and worst case scenarios makes it a little easier to get your hands around the unknowables. The NewRetirement Retirement Planner lets you do exactly that.

For retirement investments, you might want to tailor your asset allocation strategy to your needs and wants – investing money for needs in conservative vehicles and money for wants more aggressively.

Get 28 Retirement Investing Tips from Today’s Financial Geniuses.

Be Decisive (With the Right Point of View)

In their book, “Decisive, How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work,” Chip and Dan Heath argue that there are four villains to good decision making:

  • Narrow framing (not considering enough options)
  • Confirmation bias (only paying attention to what you think you should pay attention to)
  • Overweighting short term emotions – especially negative emotions like fear
  • Overconfidence

Plan a better retirement with the WRAP method

Heath and Heath argue that you can combat bad decision making with what they call the WRAP method:

1) Widen your options

2) Reality test assumptions

3) Attain distance before deciding

4) Prepare to be wrong

Running scenarios in the NewRetirement Planner can help you with the wrap method. Instead of making a decision on a gut call, you can look at different options, see the impact of each scenario, and compare your opportunities.

Anchoring: What You Think is Important May Not Be Critical

Change your mind and you can change the world (or at least your future retirement.) – Norman Vincent Peale

Anchoring is the impulse to rely too heavily on one piece of information when making decisions.

Example: When planning for retirement, most people anchor on how much savings they need. However, savings is just one aspect – often not even the most valuable aspect – of your retirement security.

When you start Social Security, whether or not you’ll downsize, figuring out how to turn savings into retirement income and understanding your future spending needs are probably more important than (and certainly impact) how much savings you need.

Overcome anchoring

Behavioral finance research suggests that educating yourself about all the factors that impact your retirement financial security is a good step to overcoming anchoring.

To start, you might want to explore all the different scenarios that impact your retirement plan and actually experiment with your own numbers in a detailed retirement planning calculator.

Get Pressured by Your Peers (Use the Bandwagon Effect to Your Advantage)

Birds of a feather flock together.

The bandwagon effect is a behavioral finance observation that you have the inclination to do things because many other people – particularly your friends and family – do them.

Example: Research shows that people who have friends who exercise and eat well are healthier themselves. The same is actually true of retirement planning. People who have friends who are knowledgeable and proactive with their finances are more likely to be financially stable themselves.

Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. And, because the vast majority of people in the United States have an extremely low financial IQ it may be that your friends aren’t doing you any favors when it comes to developing good financial habits.

Overcoming the bandwagon effect

Maybe you could start a “retirement club?” A retirement club is kind of like a book club but you discuss retirement topics instead of novels. It can provide a friendly forum for learning about financial topics.

Be Contrarian: Overcome Choice Supportive Bias and Confirmation Bias

Beware of false knowledge; It is more dangerous than ignorance. – George Bernard Shaw

According to Wikipedia, choice supportive bias is the “tendency to remember one’s choices as better than they actually were.” Confirmation bias is similar in that we seem to be predisposed to focus on information that confirms our preconceptions.

Example: Choice supportive and confirmation biases seem to be particularly dangerous when it comes to investments. Imagine you get a stock tip. When you research that tip, you are likely to seek information that confirms the tip rather than get a more unbiased perspective.

Overcoming Choice Supportive and Confirmation Biases:

There are a few ways to deal with these biases with regards to investments:

  • Have an Investment Plan: An investment plan – or asset allocation plan – is a written document that outlines exactly why you are invested in what way and what you will do in a variety of future scenarios. This prevents you from making rash decisions.
  • Work with a Professional: Many people simply can not keep their emotions out of their financial decision making. A financial advisor can act as your rational brain and keep your investments on track for the long term.

Don’t Sell When Stocks Go Up (Resist the Disposition Effect)

Risk comes from not knowing what you are doing. — Warren Buffet

The disposition effect is actually specific to investments. It is the tendency to sell an asset that has risen in value and resist selling an asset that has dropped in value. This is not actually the best strategy. It is just a bias.

Example: I am actually guilty of this. I am currently holding $3,000 of some small company that I bought years ago (like 30 years ago) at $7,000. All indications suggest that this company is headed for bankruptcy and won’t last long. However, I don’t really want to sell it. Sure, it’s small potatoes, but I still spend time thinking about it and tracking it and really I should just get rid of it.

On the other hand, I am tempted to take my short term gains whenever the market goes up – even though I am actually invested for the long term.

Overcoming Disposition Effect:

Avoiding any kind of emotional or irrational decision making is a good idea:

  • Have a written investment or asset allocation plan
  • Rebalance to retain desired asset allocation structures
  • Work with a financial planner

Understand Value (Know the Impact of the Endowment Effect)

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

The endowment effect is the phenomenon that people “demand much more to give up an object than they would be willing to pay to acquire it.” People think that things they already own – especially things with emotional meaning – are more valuable and tend to want to hang on to them.

Example: Homes are usually a person’s most valuable asset. However, the majority of retirees are somewhat wary of downsizing or tapping into that home equity – even if they might need or want the money.

Sometimes the reluctance is due to wanting to retain the asset for heirs, other times they want to stay where they have always lived (even if it is not suitable for their current needs). Whatever the reason, homes are an emotionally charged asset so the endowment effect is probably an extremely powerful force.

Overcoming the endowment effect

Being aware that your brain has this tendency to want to keep what it already has can probably help you behave more rationally. Making lists of the pros and cons of retaining an object or asset can also help you make a more informed and mindful decision.

Ask yourself questions: If you didn’t already own this, how much would you pay for it? How much effort would you put into acquiring it?

Continuing with the housing example, making a list of everything you could gain from selling your home — a better lifestyle, lower cost basis, earlier retirement or being closer to family — might help you get over the endowment effect.

Try out different what if strategies for tapping home equity when you use the NewRetirement Planner.

The Money Illusion: Think Purchasing Power, Not Dollar Value

Inflation is when you pay fifteen dollars for the ten-dollar haircut you used to get for five dollars when you had hair. – Sam Ewing

Money does not have intrinsic value. The value of money resides in how much it can purchase – which changes over time.

The money illusion is the tendency people have to think of the nominal value (the numerical amount) rather than the purchasing power of that money.

Buying power – how much you can buy – is more important than how much money you have. And, the purchasing power of your money in retirement is more important than the balance of your accounts.

Example: How much is $1 worth? Well, ten years ago, a dollar could buy a candy bar. And, it might seem like $1 would still buy a candy bar, but the reality is that the average price of a candy bar is more than $2.00. Nevermind the fact that it cost 5 cents back when most of us were kids.

The money illusion can be really confusing to people, but it is critical to understand this concept – especially with regards to inflation and inflation’s potential impact on your retirement finances.

Think about your investments. If you are getting a 6% return on investments, but inflation is rising at 3.5%, then the real value of your ROI is only 2.5%.

Overcoming the money illusion

When planning retirement, it is critical that you factor inflation into your calculations.

A good retirement planning calculator will project inflation rates and factor that into your results.

  • The NewRetirement Planner actually allows you to set your own optimistic and pessimistic assumptions for retirement and try different what if scenarios with these numbers to help make the money illusion concept very real. Immediately see how your finances shift every time you change inflation rates or any other number in your plan.

Overcome Present Bias: Make Friends with Your Future

Present bias is the tendency we have to value the moments that are closer to the present than those farther in the future.

It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves. – William Shakespeare

Example: It is a well documented phenomenon that you are more likely to spend money this month on something that gives you pleasure now rather than save that money for your future self. Present bias is one of the BIG reasons that saving for retirement is so difficult for so many people.

Overcome present bias

One way to overcome this bias is to imagine or even view a picture of what you might look like as an old person – even a really old person. Research indicates that if you can truly visualize yourself in the future, then you are more likely to save money, eat better, exercise and generally plan to take care of your future self.

Move Upstream: Tackle the Root Problem

In his book, “Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen,” author Dan Heath tells a story commonly attributed to Irving Zola: “You and a friend are having a picnic by the side of a river. Suddenly you hear a shout from the direction of the water – a child is drowning. Without thinking, you both dive in, grab the child and swim to shore. Before you can recover, you hear another child cry for help. You jump back in the river to rescue her as well. Then another struggling child drifts into sight… and another… and another…

The two of you can barely keep up.  Suddenly, you see your friend wading out of the water, seeming to leave you alone. “Where are you going?” you demand. Your friend answers, “I’m going upstream to tackle the guy who’s throwing all these kids in the water.”

The point of the story is that you can’t always act and react to the present, at some point, you need to get above the fray or into the future and solve the underlying causes of problems, not just the issues happening to you at any given moment.

Move upstream to have a secure retirement

You can’t have a secure retirement if you are always having to figure out how to pay for everything you need today. You need to get upstream of retirement by planning, saving, budgeting and  investing.

Status Quo Bias: Why You Need to Keep Evolving

The status quo bias is the impulse to keep things the same. It is more comfortable to keep going as you always have than to make any kind of big change. In fact, sometimes abandoning the status quo takes the proverbial leap of faith.

Life is traveling to the edge of knowledge, then a leap taken. – D.H. Lawrence

Example: While we are all pretty excited about retirement, it can be awfully hard to take the leap and actually stop working. Part of the difficulty can be attributed to our desire to just keep the status quo.

Overcome the status quo

Here are a few tips from Coaching Positive Performance about overcoming the status quo bias:

  1. Review past big changes or challenges – this will remind you that you are capable of transformation.
  2. Break up the change into smaller chunks. Maybe you shouldn’t retire all at once, how about taking a long sabbatical first or going part time for awhile.
  3. Identify obstacles. You need a solid plan if you are going to retire. Documenting a detailed retirement plan can help you identify stumbling blocks and how you will overcome them.

Make Small – Even Minuscule – Changes

James Clear writes in his book, “Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones” about how, when you want to make a change, it is more important to adopt very small changes rather than trying to fix everything all at once.  He argues that tiny changes and marginal gains allow us to get rid of bad behavior and develop good habits.

So, you don’t need to become a millionaire this year, you just need to start saving – even saving small amounts.

Clear argues that goals are not as important as systems.  He says that “goals show you the right direction, but systems are better for making progress.”  A system is something you can enact day after day.  A goal is something that takes a long time to achieve and the boost of achievement is just a one time event.

Atomic habits for a better retirement

Instead of focusing on how much you need to save to achieve a secure retirement, break down the goal into daily actions — how much can you save each day and what mechanisms do you have for tracking and rewarding or acknowledging your daily achievements?

And, for planning, instead of meeting with your financial advisor once a year, create your own retirement plan and check in on it monthly or quarterly, making small adjustments for more wealth in your future!

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