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Struggling to Save Money? Here’s How Your Summer Vacation Can Inspire Your Goals

The way we spend our time can teach us how to set savings goals that motivate us.

Collage of mason jar filled with dollar bills and a calculator along with outlined illustrations of a dollar sign, a chart and a percentage sign

We all want to save more money, but we also don’t want to actually do the saving.

Why is saving so difficult to do? There are a couple of reasons.

For one, we are biased toward the present, so we often balk at the idea of sacrificing something now to have something later. A common example of this is those of us (present company included) who dump our laundry on our bed to ensure our future self is the one who has to take time to fold it.

And secondly, the abstract and uncertain nature of saving goals makes it harder to commit to those present sacrifices. If I use my money today to buy myself a little treat, then I can enjoy that little treat right now. If I put that same money away for saving, what will it get me in a month, a year, or a decade? I have a harder time answering the question.

We also tend to have misconceptions about saving money that allow us to absolve ourselves of not doing it. For one, people often imagine they will save money in the future when a different financial situation will allow them to do so (but they don’t). Additionally, we tend to think of savings goals as all-or-nothing. So if we think we are going to fall short, we don’t bother.

There are flaws with this thinking, though. Say I set the goal of saving 20% for a down payment on a house. I may fall a couple thousand dollars short, but I’ll still be better off than if I hadn’t saved any money.

Also, we tend to discount the power of saving. We imagine it as a linear process (it goes up a little bit each time I put money in) instead of an exponential process that more accurately represents the trajectory of invested savings. This means we underestimate the long-term cost of not saving.

Unfortunately for those of us who struggle, the fact remains: Saving money is good for us. It provides us financial security in the near future and the distant future, improving financial well-being.

So, what’s a would-be saver to do?

Good Savings Goals Make a Difference

Having the right goal is crucial to motivating you to start saving money and stick with it. But defining a good financial goal for you is easier said than done.

It’s a complicated task that requires us to think abstractly. And when our brains encounter difficult tasks, they often like to take shortcuts—also known as heuristics—to handle them.

One example of this is the availability heuristic, which means we tend to place more weight on information that easily comes to mind. In goal setting, this can be a problem because it means we may set a goal that doesn’t reflect our true desires. For example, you might find yourself deciding to save for a home because of a slew of friends purchasing homes, when you would truly prefer the freedom to move around easily. These “false” goals are problematic because you’re unlikely to be motivated to achieve them.

However, thinking about how you would like to spend your time may help you set more-meaningful goals that you will actually pursue. Previous research has found that people are more likely to start saving toward goals that are emotional or experiential in nature. Other research has shown that we are more likely to save money if our goals align well with our personality, again suggesting the importance of finding goals that fit you.

Save Better by Finding Goals that Motivate You

I propose you start by looking to your summer vacation to help you find better savings goals.

This sadly does not mean saving up for your next vacation. Instead, I want you to reflect on your latest trip (or staycation) to glean insights into what matters to you, which will help develop more-motivating savings goals.

1. What were your favorite parts of your vacation?

This is the easiest part. Reflect on a vacation or even a weekend you enjoyed. What were the best parts? You don’t have to rank them, but write them down in a list.

2. Why did you value those parts of your vacation?

Look over your list and identify what you valued about each item.

For example, if you wrote down a special dinner, what was it that made the dinner so memorable? Was it whom you were with? In that case, you might value family or quality time with a spouse. Was it that you tried something you’ve never had before? If so, you might say you value novel experiences or adventures.

You can use one of many values frameworks to help guide your thinking (our previous research has used the PERMA-V framework), but don’t feel constrained by them.

3. How can these values be incorporated into long-term savings goals?

Think of those big saving goals you might have, such as saving for retirement, and color them in using these newfound values.

Remember, saving is often difficult because it’s hard to envision what our future will look like. As silly as it may sound, you can use these values to help you daydream about the future you’re saving for; this can make it seem more real and better motivate you to save for it.

For example, say I valued the achievement I had on my latest vacation where I finished a strenuous hike. I can take that value—achievement—and incorporate it into my vision of my savings goal.

Now I can say that I want to save for retirement not just for the sake of retiring, but so I have more time to seek out these kinds of achievements. Maybe I would like to tackle an even more difficult hike than the last one or learn a language and take a trip to test out my chops.

Suddenly, my goal of “retirement” becomes more than just a word. It becomes a range of invigorating opportunities to live out my values.

By nature, saving is not a fun thing to do. But you can use your values to find the inspiration—and motivation—for committing to your savings goals.

The author or authors do not own shares in any securities mentioned in this article. Find out about Morningstar’s editorial policies.

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About the Author

Danielle Labotka

Behavioral Scientist (Saving & Retirement)
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Danielle Labotka, Ph.D., is a behavioral scientist for Morningstar Research Services LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Morningstar, Inc. She conducts original research to understand how investor and advisor behaviors and biases affect financial decision-making.

Before joining Morningstar in 2022, Labotka was a research fellow at the University of Michigan working on projects funded by the National Science Foundation. Her work has been published in academic journals such as Cognition and Frontiers in Psychology.

Labotka holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology and comparative human development from the University of Chicago. She also holds a doctorate in psychology from the University of Michigan.

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