We all know them. The planners who know more about investing and interest rates than you ever will. People who buy insurance for everything and are always thinking about the future.
Well, they may not be as smart with their money as you think.
In fact, the financial decisions many people make may have little to do with how good they are at math or how much they know about 401(k)s and more to do with their emotions. Specifically, financial decisions are strongly influenced by the way people view time, according to a new study by Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist who orchestrated the Stanford Prison experiment in the 1970s.
People’s financial health was correlated with whether they were more focused on the past, the present or the future, according to study Zimbardo did with MagnifyMoney.com, a Web site that helps consumers compare financial products. Perhaps even more troubling, people are unlikely to realize how their time perspectives are impacting their wallets, Zimbardo says: “Essentially the paradox is: All the decisions you make in life are based on something you’re not aware of.”
Researchers explored the financial habits of people in six countries, including the United States, Brazil, Britain, Germany, Italy and China. Participants were given a quiz to determine the way they view time, asked to assess their financial literacy and then evaluated on their financial well-being based on how much debt they had, where they borrowed and how likely they were to experience bankruptcy or foreclosure.
The report found that people who like to plan for the future think they are good with money but with the wrong guidance, they may spend too much on insurance or other investing ideas that promise a sense of security-- even a false one. In other words, knowing the smart thing to do with your money isn’t enough to get you to actually do it.
“We’re in no way saying don’t learn about math or don’t learn what a 401(k) is,” says Nick Clements, co-founder of MagnifyMoney. “But what we’re seeing in the research is that helping someone be better equipped and training them to go toward or away a product is even more important.”
People who are too focused on the present, “the guys you like to have in the party,” who are primarily concerned with having a good time, are prone to living beyond their means and should avoid credit cards, Clements says. On the flipside, present-oriented people who stress their immediate needs-- by focusing on decisions that need to be made today or bills that are due tomorrow-- might never think about the long-term changes they can make to reduce their financial burdens, he says.
Clements recalls a woman with credit card debt who ran up a $12,000 credit card bill after losing her job. She always paid her bills on time but didn’t realize that her credit score was strong enough to qualify for a balance transfer to a credit card with a lower interest rate. She was so focused on her current challenges that she convinced herself she wouldn’t be able to get a better deal, he says.
Oddly enough, it was people who are stuck in the past, especially those who may have been burned by a crisis or bad decision, who were better off financially, the study found. Those consumers are less likely to buy things they can’t afford, reducing their chances of taking on debt, filing for bankruptcy or experiencing foreclosure.
But every approach, when taken to an extreme, has its flaws. People who look back too often on the good old days may be averse to trying new approaches, resisting methods that may be more efficient or more profitable. And people who are too conservative with their investments out of fear that they'll see a big loss, are also setting themselves up to miss out on market gains, Clements says.
Still, it’s because of that caution that a higher percentage of millennials were found to be better off financially than boomers, Zimbardo and Clements say. While younger workers are more likely to be burdened by student debt and often feel like they don’t know much when it comes to financial literacy, they are more cautious with their money, mostly because of the shock they faced after graduating during the Great Recession.“They entered the workforce at a particularly bad time,” Clements says.
Facing layoffs early in their careers and watching family members lose their lifetime savings during the market crash made millennials more likely to save than to buy a car or a home they can't afford, Clements says, adding that there is also a good chance they’ll be conservative with those savings.
In contrast, boomers, who were also scarred by the recession, are very future oriented, making them good planners but less likely to “enjoy the moment,” Zimbardo says. That tendency to plan should be a good thing overall, Clements says, as long as they take time to slow down and make sure they're following smart advice.
Wondering how your emotions are hurting your wallet? Take our quiz to find out if your personality is making you broke.