How much you spend or save is a result of habit. That's good news, because it means you can trick yourself into saving more. Here's how.

You know that if you do enough abdominal crunches and jumping jacks, your stomach will get stronger and you’ll lose some weight.

According to psychology experts, the mind is just another muscle that works the same way. If you exercise the brain, you can strengthen your financial health, and lose some of that money-related anxiety.

We asked Ryan T. Howell, Ph.D, an Associate Professor in the Psychology Department at San Francisco State University and co-founder of Beyond the Purchase, a think tank about how and why people spend money, to explain how you can use the power of the mind to trick yourself into buying less, paying down debt, and saving more.

Post visual reminders of your financial goals in strategic spots

Saving for something big, like a vacation? Or trying to get your credit card balance down to zero?

Place a visual reminder in places you look at a lot.

For example, print out a picture of your next ideal vacation destination, and wrap it around your debit card, or change the background photo on your cell phone.

If you’re a big online shopper, but want to wipe out your credit card debt, change the background image on your computer screen to a big fat zero.

“This helps take the emotional excitement out of buying and makes it a deliberative, cognitive process,” Ryan says.

Find a cheaper phone plan

Many of us spend a lot more money than we need to on our phone plans. There are many alternatives to high-price, big-name phone carriers—take FreedomPop for example.

Let’s compare FreedomPop’s most popular plan of unlimited text, talk, & 2GB of data, at the cost of $24.99 (after the free one-month trial!) to Verizon, AT&T and Sprint. For this same plan, Verizon charges you $40, AT&T charges you $50, and Sprint opts for a 3GB plan instead of two at $50.

You might be saying, well FreedomPop must have spotty coverage or charge way too much to purchase a new phone—there’s got to be a catch. Well, you’d be wrong.

FreedomPop gets their coverage through Sprint, so anywhere your Sprint phone works, so will FreedomPop. And compared to Verizon, FreedomPop works just as well in inconsistent coverage areas like Maine.

FreedomPop also offers a much more financially accessible phone purchase. The Moto E 2nd Gen LTE Android phone is just $29.99 compared to the hundreds you could spend on a phone elsewhere.

FreedomPop’s 2GB plan is for someone who spends a good amount of time looking at their phone. If you’re a more casual phone user, FreedomPop can offer you a plan that’s free. Yes, free. You can get 200 minutes for talk, 500 texts, and 500MB of data each month at no cost to you.

When considering which phone plan to use, make sure to think about what you really need and make sure to choose a plan that doesn’t charge you for what you aren’t using.

Stick with budgeting tools and apps, even when they make you feel bad

You downloaded an app like Spending Tracker or finally linked up all your accounts with one of our recommending budgeting tools.

Feels good to take control of your finances, right?

Yes—for awhile.

Don’t be surprised if you start to feel depressed once you start actually entering numbers about purchases, or seeing—in those neat, colored graphs—how far off your budget you went.

“These tools have made it so simple and easy to track money,” Ryan says. “But knowledge can be painful. It’s unenjoyable to know you’re not doing well at something.”

But stick with it, Ryan advises. “It’s like exercise,” he says. “At first, it’s painful. But then you begin to enjoy it, or at least realize the uncomfortableness is worth it. Realizing you spend too much money isn’t fun, but the pain that comes with massive credit card debt is worse.”

There’s also an easy way to save money similar to budgeting apps, but that does the work for you.

Chances are you have a couple of subscriptions out there that you quickly signed up for, but forgot about haven’t had the chance to cancel. Maybe it’s your gym membership, or that freelance site you no longer need because you’re full-up on jobs.

Either way, Trim, a free financial service, will find and cancel these subscriptions for you. All you have to do is link your bank and credit card info to their service (don’t worry, they only load the transactions related to subscriptions). They then send you a text message with all your subscriptions (Netflix, Hulu, your gym, etc.) and you can cancel them by replying with “Cancel [insert subscriptions here].”

Don’t purchase upgrades

Retailers offer upgrades for almost everything these days. But in most cases, the upgrade isn’t worth the cost.

“Think about a concert or a baseball game,” Ryan says. “Is there really a difference between nosebleeds and ten rows in front of the nosebleeds? Unless you’re paying for an upgrade that will get you behind the dugouts or in the tenth row, don’t buy the upgrade.”

Wait 24 hours to buy any unnecessary items

Avoid engaging in retail therapy.

“If you’re wandering through a mall aimlessly, and you’re feeling bad about your career or something else, and you see a shiny new phone, you might think, ‘That will make me happy,’” he says.

But studies show the joy that comes with a new purchase usually disappears. All you’re left with is the debt from these purchases, or less money to put in savings. The less money you have, the more stressed you’ll be.

But sometimes you do need a new phone, or new clothing. So when is it OK to make these purchases? When you take 24 hours to think it over.

“After 24 hours, you’re probably not making an emotional purchase,” Ryan says. “You either really want it, or you’ve decided the purchase will truly bring you closer to family and friends.”

When shopping or eating out, if the total is less than $100, use cash

The last time I visited an ATM was over two weeks ago, when I took out $100. It’s a pain for me to get to an ATM, especially in cold weather. Now that I can deposit checks through Chase’s mobile app, I have even less of a reason go to an actual bank.

I just checked my wallet, and I still have $80 there (my husband swiped $20).

Now I’ve certainly spent money since then—I just always pay with my debit card at stores and restaurants.

Even though I know I have cash in my wallet when I’m paying a bill, I’m reluctant to use it. I keep telling myself I may need it in the case of an emergency (although when I think about it, I’m not sure how cash would really help me) or if I go to a cash-only restaurant. But when I think about it, that’s ridiculous. I can just stop being so lazy and go to ATMs more.

According to Ryan, your brain will send out a lot of “don’t do it” signals when you know you only have cash in your pocket. “Research shows there’s pain in paying with cash,” he says. “You really understand how much you’re parting with when you use cash. You don’t have that same experience with plastic.”

You probably shouldn’t carry around loads of cash. After all, wallets are sometimes lost or stolen. But Ryan thinks carrying around $100, and using that to pay totals and tabs will pay off in the long run.

What mental tricks and tips do you have for saving money? Leave a comment.

Read More:

Related Tools

About the author

Total Articles: 37
Patty Lamberti is a freelance writer and Professional-in-Residence at Loyola University Chicago, where she teaches journalism and oversees the graduate program in digital media storytelling. If she doesn't know something about money, you can trust she'll track down the right people to find out. You can learn more about her at And if you have any story ideas, or questions about money etiquette that you'd like her or an expert to answer, email her at [email protected]