Psych Yourself to Save
By Julia Boorstin

(FORTUNE Magazine) – You can blame many factors for our dismal savings rate--less than 1% of our disposable household income--but one is simple American optimism. Even if we don't save enough for retirement right now, we tell ourselves, everything will work out in the end. Behavioral economists say that understanding savings-hindering psychological tendencies like this can help us overcome them. Here are four such blind spots--and how to get around them.

•PROBLEM: If you see money in your checking account, you spend it. •SOLUTION: Pay yourself first.

Automatic savings plans, especially those that deduct money directly from your paycheck and put it into a 401(k) plan, mutual fund, or savings account, are a godsend: The money is whisked away into a kitty where you don't see it and are far less likely to touch it. Consider a client of Los Angeles financial planner Jim Gottfurcht, a doctor in his 50s who had very little set aside for retirement because he regularly outspent his $200,000 salary. Gottfurcht started him off at a 5% automatic deduction last year; now it's up to 10%. "After a bit of anxiety for the first few months," says Gottfurcht, "he quickly found he didn't miss that extra money at all."

•PROBLEM: You spend "windfall" money whenever you get it. •SOLUTION: Treat all money the same.

We are inclined to spend money we weren't expecting--a gift, a bonus, a tax refund--more freely than we would regular income. That's because we tend to create different mental categories for different kinds of money, says Gary Belsky, author of Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes--and How to Correct Them. But when you're withdrawing it as a retiree, all money is the same. So don't blow a holiday bonus on anything you wouldn't buy otherwise. Sound overly restrictive? Then tell yourself you'll put the "found money" into a savings account for just one month and consider how to spend it later. By the time the month is up, says Belsky, the dough will likely feel more like savings than a windfall, and you'll be less likely to use it on a shopping spree.

•PROBLEM: You throw good money after bad. •SOLUTION: Don't let past decisions dictate future ones.

Financial planner Elaine Scoggins tells of a pair of clients in their mid-60s who bought a $250,000 yacht, which they were planning to use in retirement to cruise between Florida and the Caribbean. On their first trip the boat broke down, and the couple subsequently spent thousands on repairs, insurance, and the like. "It took them three years to get tired of the bottomless pit and sell it," Scoggins says. "It was hard for them to admit that the boat wasn't the best idea." Past decisions can't be undone; make future spending and saving decisions based on what you know now.

•PROBLEM: Saving money feels like depriving yourself. •SOLUTION: Visualize something concrete that your savings will buy.

Saving for retirement isn't a loss, of course; it's a future gain. But the future can seem mighty nebulous, and that flat-screen TV is on sale now. The secret to successful saving is to focus like a laser on the better things your savings will buy in the future. Tom and Sue, a Pittsburgh couple in their early 50s, were making plenty of money but weren't saving enough for retirement. Their financial planner, Diane Pearson, helped them visualize something they craved in retirement: building and decorating their dream house. "With that concrete goal it was easy for them to increase their savings by $500 and then $1,000 a month," says Pearson. -- J.B.