My Grandfather's Money Clip
Source: My Grandfather's Money Clip

In August 2017, my team at Creighton University tested whether positive memories tied to sentimental items could be harnessed to improve financial decision-making. More specifically, we designed a double-blind, randomized control experiment to see if we could use an individual’s emotional attachment to a nostalgic item to increase their emotional engagement in their savings behaviors, and potentially improve their financial habits.

Research has shown that a memory can be so vivid it’s like experiencing the event again (Horner, et al., 2015). As such, remembering an event, a situation, an object, a personal item, or a person can evoke a shiver of excitement, a pounding heart, and intense emotions. There is also evidence to suggest that financial beliefs and behaviors can be impacted by emotionally charged experiences (Klontz & Britt, 2012; Klontz & Klontz, 2009) and by the elicitation of specific emotions (Ham, Lerner, & Keltner, 2007). These findings led us to explore the power that pleasant emotions related to past experiences might have on influencing positive financial behaviors.

In our three-week Banking Reimagined Savings Study, conducted with support from Capital One, we randomly assigned participants into one of two groups: a control group and an experimental group. Both groups were surveyed before the experiment, immediately after the experiment, and three weeks following the experiment. Those assigned to the experimental group were asked to bring in a nostalgic item or a picture of a nostalgic item with them to the study. The experiment was a double-blind study, meaning that neither the participants nor the presenters knew which group they were in (experimental or control), nor were they aware of what was happening in the other group.

When they arrived at the study location, the control group received a standard financial education presentation. This presentation focused on educating participants on the importance of saving, the power of compound interest, and various savings strategies, with time for questions and answers. In contrast, the experimental group did not receive an education on savings. Instead, they experienced a presentation that focused on immersive, emotion-based exercises designed to evoke positive memories and feelings around their nostalgic items. With these positive emotions evoked, the presentation shifted to naming these emotions and the underlying values associated with their nostalgic items and how these values and emotions relate to future savings goals.

Three weeks after the study, both groups were contacted and reported back on their savings behaviors. The results were dramatic.

What We Found

Both the control and experimental groups significantly increased their rates of savings, as a percentage of gross income. However, there was a significant difference with regard to the magnitude of these increases. While the control group increased their savings by 22 percent, the experimental group increased their savings by a whopping 67 percent — an increase three times greater. If maintained over the course of the year, this change could represent an average of $10,020 in annual savings for the participants in the experimental group, compared to their average of $5,838 in annual savings prior to the study.

So, across all five cities, the sentimental item group reported saving, on average, a substantially higher percentage of their gross income three weeks after the emotion-based immersion:

  • Boston: 75 percent increase
  • Austin: 40 percent increase
  • Seattle: 47 percent increase
  • Atlanta: 137 percent increase
  • Dallas: 115 percent increase

A variety of savings beliefs and behaviors were positively impacted. The experimental group also showed statistically significant increases in their readiness to save, confidence toward saving, and their financial health from pre-experiment to post-experiment. Specifically, we found the following:

  • Readiness to Save: The experimental group’s readiness to save increased three times more compared to the control group.
  • Confidence in Ability to Save More: The experimental group’s confidence in their ability to save increased twice as much as the control group.
  • Financial Health: The experimental group’s financial health increased four times more than the control group.

Interestingly, the experimental group also reported that they were significantly more emotionally attached (10 percent) to their nostalgic item from pre-experiment to post-experiment. This suggests that not only were we able to elicit positive emotions related to their nostalgic items and use them to help inspire an increase in savings, but participants also became even more attached to their items than they were before the study.

What This Means

We hypothesize that the experimental group participants were able, through positive, emotionally charged memories, to develop a deeper emotional incentive for saving money. The exercises they engaged in may have enabled them to more viscerally relate saving money to the family, life values, and goals that mean the most to them.

By incorporating personal nostalgia and savings experiences into financial planning — workshops, money coaching conversations, or even self-directed processes — it may be possible to successfully harness a person’s positive emotions related to their past to facilitate healthier financial decision-making.

What People Can Do

We must engage our emotional brain if we want to change our financial behaviors. Based on the Banking Reimagined Savings Study results, those interested in improving their financial health could try some of the same exercises the experimental group experienced in the study to increase their own savings behavior.

1. Tapping into the emotions and values connected to a heartfelt nostalgic item may make people more inclined to save financially.

  • Consciously connecting positive emotional memories with your values can help strengthen the ability to plan a clear path toward future financial goals and give you the confidence to make it happen.
  • Think of an item you’ve kept for positive sentimental reasons. Hold it in your hands. Think about the circumstances by which this item came into your possession and what it means to you. Is it something a grandparent or parent gave you, and thus is tied to the importance of a loving and supportive family? Is it an item from your childhood that you relate to feelings of safety and security? Or is it something from a vacation abroad that serves as a reminder of a sense of adventure and the great experiences you were lucky to have, and which you hope to have more of in the future?
  • Now ask yourself what kind of feelings and values are associated with that item. Chances are, these feelings and values tap into some of what matters most to you and underlie many of your current savings goals.

​​2. Consider creating some visual motivators to improve your relationship with money.

  • To harness emotions and gain financial confidence, come up with an exciting vision of what you are saving for by asking yourself the following questions: What would saving for the future get you? What is it you truly want? Get specific. What does it look like? How would it feel to have it? Who might you enjoy it with? Where are you? What do you see, feel, experience?
  • Now create a visual motivator. For example, cut out a picture from a magazine depicting your goal and tape it to your mirror. Better yet, put a picture of your goal as your screensaver or smartphone wallpaper, where you can see it several times a day.
  • Don’t just have a "savings account." Name it. Have a "2018 European Family Vacation Account."

3. When you are motivated to take action, automate it.

  • Set up a weekly or monthly automatic contribution from your checking account to a savings account. It takes just a moment to set up, and then you leave it alone. Before you know it, you will have made significant progress on your goal to save more.

Conclusion

If you are like many Americans, you realize that you may need to save more for the future to reach your goals. But how can you bridge the gap between what you know you should do and taking the time and effort to make it happen? If your goal is to motivate yourself to save more, consider activating your emotional brain using one or more of the experiences described above. When we have a clear picture of what we want to save, when we can identify why it matters to us, and when we can experience on a deep, emotional level how great it will feel to reap the rewards of our efforts, saving more becomes not only possible — it becomes fun.

References

Han, S., Lerner, J.S., & Keltner, D. (2007). Feelings and consumer decision making: The appraisal-tendency framework. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 17(3), 158-168.

Horner, A.J., Bisby, J.A., Bush, D., Lin, W-J., and Burgess, N. (2015). Evidence for holistic episodic recollection via hippocampal pattern completion. Nature Communications, 6(7462), 1-11.

Klontz, B.T., & Britt, S.L. (2012). Financial trauma: Why the abandonment of buy-and-hold in favor of tactical asset management may be a symptom of posttraumatic stress. Journal of Financial Therapy, 3(2), 14-27.

Klontz, B., & Klontz, T. (2009). Mind over money: Overcoming the money disorders that threaten our financial health. New York, NY: Broadway Books.

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