The Home Economist: Successful savers keep eye on the prize

The Miami HeraldJanuary 12, 2014 

Jackson Memorial Hospital pediatric coordinator Javier Salazar has a 2014 New Year's resolution: to save even more money. His wife is great at budgeting, he said, and a chunk of his salary slides directly over to savings. But to be sure they can survive any economy, they'll need to spend even less this year. How? Easy, Salazar said. He's going to resist the urge to pull out his credit cards.

"It's hard to stop the habit of using credit," Salazar said. "I've got to be focused and ask myself, 'Do I really need this now?'"

When it comes to saving money, it's fine to recognize our weaknesses, say researchers, but focusing too intently on correcting them can cause us to miss other goal-achieving opportunities. So rather than zooming in on how we're going to reach those financial finish lines, Robyn LeBoeuf, an associate professor of marketing at University of Florida, has research proving we also must remember why we want to get there.

"If you form a plan you might miss out on other things that are not in the plan," LeBoeuf said.

LeBoeuf verified this in her lab, where she paid college students trying to save money each $3 to participate. She first instructed them to think about why they wanted to achieve their financial goals. Afterward, half were told to formulate a plan, with most revealing they'd eat out less or order fewer pizzas. The whole group was then later offered the opportunity to buy a snack for 75 cents. Those who did not formulate a plan were more likely to resist the surprise impulse purchase.

"If you focus too heavily on not eating out, you might not remember to buy in bulk or cut coupons," LeBoeuf said. "The plan made them less likely to save money. You don't want to lose sight of the big picture."

It makes sense, said Dr. Ronda Fuchs, a licensed psychologist in Miami Beach. Sure, being hyper-focused might keep temptation at bay, she said, but it also cuts off advantageous options.

"Thought should always come before action," she said. "First, you think about why you want to save more or grow your business, and then you think about how to execute."

That's why we're best off setting broad financial parameters, said Wes Moss, chief investment strategist at Capital Investment Advisors in Atlanta. He tells clients to spend 30 percent of their incomes on taxes, put 20 percent into savings and live on 50 percent.

"To retire comfortably, you need to live off just half the money you earn," Moss said.

Brett Graff is a former U.S. government economist and the editor of Thehomeeconomist.com, where she reports on the economic forces affecting real people. She writes an occasional column for the Miami Herald. Reach her at brettthehomeeconomist.com.

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