The next time you feel an urge to splurge, do what I’ve started doing: Take a deep breath and visualize what could happen if you max out your credit card or fall behind on your bills.
Vividly imagining how you would cope with the consequences of your decisions not only helps you forgo temptation, it might also make you want to make financially healthier choices, a forthcoming study in the journal Psychological Science finds.
The study complements previous research that has found spending more time thinking about your “future self” also makes you more likely to save money for retirement or other long-term goals.
Thinking about your future self also makes you less likely to procrastinate on important financial tasks, such as doing your taxes or reviewing credit card and bank statements.
“There is a long tendency of behavioral interventions, from promoting healthy eating to reducing drug dependence, to appeal to willpower,” study co-author Ming Hsu said in a news release. “For example, ‘commit to be fit’ or ‘don’t do drugs.’”
The problem, though, is limiting yourself through willpower alone is exhausting. Many experts believe that willpower is a finite resource. When you exhaust it, you’re more likely to slip up in a moment of weakness.
Hsu and co-author Adrianna Jenkins found when people imagine themselves in the future, they tend to become more patient and are more willing to wait for a reward rather than indulge in instant gratification.
Even better, they’re less likely to feel taxed by their decision because they don’t have to rely on willpower alone to make the right call.
“Whereas willpower might enable people to override impulses, imagining the consequences of their choices might change the impulses,” Jenkins said in the news release. “People tend to pay attention to what’s in their immediate vicinity, but there are benefits to imagining the possible consequences of their choices.”
Future self as motivator for today
Intrigued by the study’ s findings, I tried the technique myself.
It’s only been a few days, but I’ve found thinking about my future self and how I might react to a financial calamity, such as a drained bank account or unaffordable credit card bill, helps blunt the urge to buy something.
I also have taken the time to imagine the positive things that could happen if I saved more, and I have found that to be even more effective.
For example, lately, I’ve been daydreaming about taking a British vacation after binging on one too many episodes of “The Great British Baking Show” and “Escape to the Country” on Netflix.
It will be years before I can afford to follow through on my dreams of walking England’s wild moors, but daydreaming about my future vacation has helped sap the urge to buy things I don’t need.
I’ve also been thinking more about my future self in an effort to feel more connected to the person I’ll become.
In recent years, I’ve hesitated to spend too much time imagining my future since I have only a modest amount of control over how things will turn out. But according to a 2011 study, people who are exposed to digitally aged photos of themselves – and as a result spend more time thinking about their future selves – tend to save more.
Similarly, a 2016 study found that imagining your future self can help combat procrastination – an important skill for saving and keeping up with finances.
Picture your future self
If you, too, want to get more acquainted with your future self, try writing down a vivid description of who you think you’ll be in order to help cement the image in your mind.
Or consider downloading a photo app that digitally ages your photo, such as Oldify or Aging Booth. Seeing a stark image of your older self could be just the reality check you need to start making smarter decisions with your money.