Building Saving’s Habit: Understanding Financial Behaviors

In today's world, the alarming reality is that a significant portion of people, including low- and moderate-income households, struggle with short- and long-term savings. This crisis poses a threat to financial security and leaves many living on the edge.


To achieve financial goals and build wealth, it is essential to comprehend the psychology behind saving and spending behaviors. This blog delves into the connection between financial actions and individual psychology, taking into account cultural and historical influences. By understanding why some individuals prioritize saving while others don't, we can uncover methods to break detrimental money habits and establish a solid financial foundation and this financial health.
Financial behaviors are closely intertwined with individual psychology, as well as historical and cultural factors. Contrary to expectations, increased wealth doesn't always lead to higher savings. Social and psychological influences play a significant role in determining why certain people prioritize saving while others adopt a more relaxed approach.


Cultural norms strongly shape saving priorities, with some countries valuing saving as a wise practice (e.g., Vietnam, Nepal, and China), while others emphasize immediate consumption and credit-based lifestyles (e.g., United States and United Kingdom). To break ingrained money habits, it is necessary to foster cultural shifts and cultivate a willingness to learn and break repetitive cycles. Historical factors contribute to varying saving rates across nations. Japan, once recognized for its high savings, has witnessed a significant decline over time.
The notion that financial constraints prevent people from saving is misleading. Research by Daryl Collins and others, studying the world's poor surviving on $2 a day, reveals that even in extreme poverty, individuals find ways to save. This challenges the belief that affordability is the primary barrier to saving. It is crucial to shift perspectives and prioritize savings, considering essentials as what remains after setting aside funds for saving.
The reasons behind not saving often stem from psychological factors rather than economic constraints. False optimism leads individuals to believe that things will improve without the need for saving, enabling them to avoid the challenges associated with it. Additionally, some individuals exhibit a "Peter Pan syndrome," avoiding responsibility for the future and relying on others to resolve their financial concerns.
Saving involves making intertemporal choices, weighing immediate consumption against postponing it. Psychological biases, such as present bias, often lead individuals to prioritize immediate desires over long-term goals. This inclination to indulge in instant gratification hinders the ability to set funds aside for emergencies or retirement. To combat this, leveraging automatic savings programs can make a substantial difference.
Research has shown that automatic enrollment in retirement plans, with default contribution rates set above zero, significantly increases savings. This approach capitalizes on people's tendency towards inaction, ensuring that they save unless they actively opt out. Similarly, auto-escalation savings programs, where contributions gradually increase over time, improve participation rates.
Afghanistan, a country with low formal savings rates, provides valuable insights. A study conducted there found that when a large employer informed workers that 5% of their paycheck would be automatically deposited into a mobile savings account unless they opted out, employees were 40% more likely to accumulate short-term savings. This approach mimics the opt-out strategy used for retirement savings and could be applied to address the short-term savings crisis in other countries.
Governments can play a significant role in overcoming regulatory concerns and encouraging employers to implement short-term savings accounts with automatic contributions for their employees. This includes not only focusing on retirement plans but also extending the scope to include emergency savings plans. By taking proactive measures, governments can help remove barriers and incentivize employers to prioritize the financial wellbeing of their employees through automatic enrollment in various savings programs.
Recognizing that not everyone has access to employer-sponsored savings plans, financial service providers, both fintech and banks can step in. Leveraging behavioral insights, they can design products that facilitate saving. Here are a few suggestions:
  • Default direct deposits into emergency savings accounts unless clients opt out. 
  • Label savings accounts as "emergency savings" to create mental categorization and discourage spending from these accounts.
  • Offer the opportunity to enroll in emergency savings accounts at a future date for clients who decline immediate enrollment.
  • Capitalize on the "fresh start effect" by marketing savings accounts during new cycles like the beginning of a week, month, or year.
  • Convert debt repayment behavior into savings behavior by automatically depositing the same payment amount into a savings account once loans are paid off.
Understanding the psychological factors that influence savings decisions is critical in tackling the short- and long-term savings crisis. By implementing psychologically-informed financial products and programs, we can empower individuals to make better financial choices for their future selves. Employers, regulatory bodies, and financial institutions all have a role to play in driving positive change and helping individuals build a secure financial foundation.

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