Apps, trackers, buckets: I’ve tried it all, why am I still bad at saving money?

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Why do I struggle to save money? I have a good income, but I never have much to show for it. I have tried budgeting spreadsheets and apps. I’ll be disciplined with it for a week or few, but it never sticks. I have tried having different buckets and transferring money to different accounts, but I always end up spending it. It’s a non-stop dance of one-step-forward, one-step-back.

Firstly, you’re not alone. This is a far more common problem than many would think.

Unfortunately, the dominant narrative about saving money can be overly simplistic. On paper, it seems so simple. Just don’t spend so much. Put money aside and don’t touch it.

When it comes to a road map for how to save, common advice centres on practical tools like savings apps or ‘buckets’. But the crux of the problem goes far deeper.Credit: Simon Letch

When it comes to a road map for how to save, common advice centres on practical tools. Try this budgeting app, or this spreadsheet, or that bucket system for bank accounts.

The problem with these suggestions is that it’s like telling someone who is trying to lose weight to “just eat less and go to the gym”. In theory, the solution seems obvious and simple.

But the real crux of the problem is that someone who is currently overeating has a mindset and lifestyle which supports that outcome. Giving them a treadmill won’t help them overcome their anxiety around exercise, or their emotional eating habits.

If you already earn a decent income and you’ve tried the practical tools unsuccessfully, take a different approach.

It’s a similar case with saving money. In my experience, people who struggle to save money have a mindset and lifestyle that doesn’t support saving money long-term.

People are usually driven to act consistently with their beliefs, so if your behaviour isn’t producing outcomes you like, ask yourself – what beliefs are driving my behaviour?

Here are some of the common unhelpful beliefs I frequently see in people who have a hard time saving money, and also the helpful beliefs that enables successful savers to save:

1. “Money is for spending”. If you hold this belief about money, you’ll find a way to act in accordance with that belief.

Maybe when you see your savings building up, you start seeking opportunities to spend it. You might even mentally spend it, before you’ve saved it. Eventually, the desire to spend becomes hard to resist.

In contrast, successful savers don’t just see the purpose of money as being for spending. They also see money as being for security, emergencies, peace of mind, and future goals.

So, when a saver sees money in their bank account, they aren’t automatically thinking about what they can spend it on. In fact, they often view that money as locked up and unavailable for short-term spending. This pushes them to figure out how to manage their expenses without touching their savings.

2. “Having too much money is greedy, selfish or wrong.” I remember working with one woman who struggled to save. Whenever she got some, she found a way to spend it, and she just couldn’t understand why.

After unpacking her psychological relationship with money, she remembered her mum had always talked about money being dirty and corrupting. She realised that she’d been trying to “get rid of” money. She felt uncomfortable with the idea of having a lot.

Think about how you perceive having a lot of money. If you believe having money is somehow selfish, corrupting, greedy or wrong, that is in direct conflict with your desire to have more of it.

It also tells your brain that having a lot of money doesn’t feel safe. Why would your brain support you in taking confident, consistent action towards something that feels fundamentally unsafe?

In contrast, successful savers don’t view having money as bad. They view money as an important resource. They view having money is important for their wellbeing, security and quality of life, and therefore don’t have internal conflict about having more of it.

3. “More money, more problems.” Do you worry about paying more in taxes if you earn more? Or maybe you fear social isolation if you suddenly start having more money than your friends and family?

Sometimes, people subconsciously fear how life might change when they have more money. More administrative complexity, change in social standing, more responsibility, less relatability to others who are still financially struggling … all of this sounds like hard work.

When you stack it up, you might find you believe having more money, or the process of saving money, is harder and more painful than your current situation.

In contrast, successful savers are willing to do the hard work of saving and managing money because they view it as less hard and painful, compared to living a life of financial stress.

If you already earn a decent income, and you’ve tried the practical tools unsuccessfully, take a different approach. Spend some time reflecting on what beliefs, assumptions and attitudes you have about spending and saving money, and how you can change them to support your goals.

Paridhi Jain is the founder of SkilledSmart, which helps adults learn to manage, save and invest their money through financial education courses and classes.

  • Advice given in this article is general in nature and is not intended to influence readers’ decisions about investing or financial products. They should always seek their own professional advice that takes into account their own personal circumstances before making any financial decisions.

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