Solution to Saving: Find Your Inner Rat.

In the realm of financial activities, saving is rarely thought of as fun. Sure, having savings is fun, but the act of deferring today's spending for tomorrow's benefit is something we usually have to push ourselves to do.

When people try to move their needle from "spend" behavior to "save" behavior they almost always start by coming up with a goal. Not a bad idea, except that they usually start with the wrong goal. Retirement? So far away. Emergency fund? Snooze. Plus nobody likes to contemplate emergencies - especially when there is a beautifully distracting SALE! sign in that window. I'm not saying that it's not good to save for retirement or emergencies (please do save for those things), what I'm saying is that if saving is a new behavior then you need to actually learn how to do it. Walk before you run.

Learning a new behavior is a process that has ups and downs. To persevere through the downs, we need consistent reinforcement that the change is worth our efforts. This reinforcement can be negative (avoiding something painful) or positive (being rewarded with something pleasant). Failing to save for retirement or an emergency fund is huge, but those consequences are probably too far removed from the day-to-day difficulties of your behavioral change goal to be meaningful motivators.

(Many people will say that the solution to this is to automate your savings for those things, and while I agree with that, our topic today is not the savings result. It's improving the savings behavior.)

The solution to increasing the savings behavior is to make it pleasurable. You want condition yourself to save like a little B.F. Skinner lab rat gets conditioned to tap a lever and receive a cheese reward. Your cheese is the enjoyment of spending what you've saved, and in the beginning you will need these rewards to be more plentiful than after you've got some savings practice under your belt.

Start by saving small. DailyWorth has a great Save to Spend monthly budget that I think is absolutely genius. Then save for longer-term (but still fun, and not too longer-term) goals like a vacation or a splurge (iPad, anyone?). Soon you'll be such a seasoned saver that it will be easy to integrate emergency fund and retirement goals into your already established savings routine.

Tara Siegel Bernard, the New York Times journalist who interviewed me for her piece on ineffective budgets, just blogged about how she's going to establish some small, meaningful goals to improve her own savings behavior. Enjoy that trip to Europe, Tara!

Zen AF