Watch this 30-second clip (transcribed below).
“I never get enough sleep. I stay up late at night because I’m Night Guy. Night Guy wants to stay up late. What about getting up after 5 hours’ sleep? Oh, that’s Morning Guy’s problem. That’s not my problem; I’m Night Guy. So, you get up in the morning, you’re exhausted, you’re groggy and you think ‘Ugh, I hate that Night Guy!’ See, Night Guy always screws Morning Guy. There’s nothing Morning Guy can do. The only thing Morning Guy can do is oversleep often enough that Day Guy loses his job and Night Guy has no money to go out anymore.”
This is a classic Jerry Seinfeld bit, that should really be watched to be fully appreciated. I heard this the other day and was struck not only by how true it is, but by how applicable it is to our behavior around money. Let’s just swap out Night and Morning Guys for Today and Tomorrow Guys.
Today Guy is the part of us that’s all about immediate gratification and living in the moment. Today Guy eats what he wants, buys what he wants and does what he wants with little to no regard for the future. Tomorrow Guy is the one who lives with the consequences of Today Guy. In the book, Nudge, by economist, behavioral scientist, author and recent recipient of the Nobel prize for economics, Richard Thaler, he gives these two characters the names Doer and Planner. Whatever we call them, they represent both sides of the eternal conflict we face between doing what feels good now and preparing for the future.
At their most fundamental level, the decisions we make come down to seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. That’s where Today Guy has a real advantage. We perceive pleasure and pain to be more intense in the short term and less intense in the long term. In our minds, an ice cream sundae tonight will be more pleasurable than one a month from now. A root canal next year sounds better than one tomorrow morning. This perception influences our decision making, so that we’re more likely to do things that feel good now and push off the harder stuff until later.
Our drive toward pleasure and away from pain is hardwired in the most basic part of our brain. It serves us well by letting us know what is good and bad. Feelings of happiness follow when we do good things (eating, mating) and feelings of pain follow when we do bad things (putting our hand on a hot stove). Of course, good and bad isn’t always so simple.
When it comes to fostering good financial behavior, we often must act in ways that are completely counterintuitive to the pleasure and pain instincts. To successfully help Tomorrow Guy, we have to use the harder-working part of our brain that can grasp making a short-term sacrifice for a long-term gain. This takes energy, or what we often think of as will power, which despite our best efforts, we sometimes just don’t have.
Rather than hoping we’ll have the will power to overcome our instincts in the future, we can set ourselves up for financial success by using our instincts to our advantage. One way to do that is to automate good financial decisions. If we expect ourselves to decide once a month to move money from checking to savings, we’re giving Today Guy twelve opportunities a year to take over and direct that money to something more immediately gratifying. Instead, put Tomorrow Guy in charge by making one good decision to turn on an automatic deposit. It’s a seemingly minor change, but it greatly increases our likelihood of success.
Another way to get around Today Guy is to establish consequences for failing to meet our goals. Even more than he wants pleasure, Today Guy wants to avoid pain. In Nudge, Thaler talks about a pair of friends who wanted to lose 30 pounds over 9 months. They agreed to pay the other $10,000 if they did not meet their goal. They both met their target, and then adopted another pact to help keep the weight off. They could call a surprise weigh in at any time and if they were over their target weight, they would owe the other an agreed upon sum of money. After 4 years, they were still on track.
For consequences to be effective motivators, they should be near-term and salient. Poor health or delayed retirement are too vague and distant; they don’t have enough pain associated with them to effectively motivate us. Truly painful consequences, on the other hand, can increase our chances of success by three times. If you’d like a little help with a particular goal, check out Stickk.com. On this site, you can enter a goal, set your financial stakes and even invite friends and family to help you stay on track. If you fail to reach your goal, your money goes to charity.
Finally, look for ways to appease Today Guy while still taking care of Tomorrow Guy. If saving for college or giving to charity are your goals, start with $1 a day or whatever amount feels painless. If that’s still too much, set an automatic start date for saving or giving in the future. Exploit the fact that we think things are less painful in the future, and sign yourself up for good behavior in advance. It’s no different than packing yourself a healthy lunch. Would you choose a kale salad when you are hungry? Probably not, but if that’s all you packed yourself then you’ll eat it anyway.
The harder we make it to do the right thing for Tomorrow Guy, the less likely Today Guy is to do it. Fortunately, we can make minor changes to our financial behavior and keep them both happy. Ask yourself – what painless step can you take today to help you have a better tomorrow?