How do you feel about saving money?

The answer – it turns out – is completely dependent on how you read the question. If you took saving money to mean getting a deal, a discount, a screaming buy on a purchase, then you likely reacted positively. And that’s true whether we’re talking about a designer handbag for half off or 10 Greek yogurts for $10 – as long as they’re both something you want.

If on the other hand, you took saving money to mean putting funds away for some time in the future, the question probably landed with a thud. “When you buy something you want, the pleasure centers in the brain are activated in the same way as when you have any other pleasurable experience,” says Kit Yarrow, author of Decoding the New Consumer Mind, out next month. “You get an immediate effect. When people save by trying not to spend money, they’re after a very long term benefit. That’s harder for all of our brains to process.”

Just how much harder is clear when you look at the findings from the seventh annual survey Assessing Household Savings, out today from the American Savings Education Counsel and the Consumer Federation of America. The proportion of people with a savings plan with specific goals dropped from 55% in 2010 to 51% in 2014. Likewise, the proportion of people with a plan that allows them to save sufficiently dropped from 46% in 2010 to 40$ this year. No wonder only about one-third of individuals surveyed are making good or excellent progress toward their goals.

What can you do to get over the hump?

First, take the pain away, says Yarrow. The problem with saving for tomorrow is that it means you’re likely not getting something with that money today. “Try not to focus on that,” she says. “Instead, make it so you don’t notice it.” The best way to do this hasn’t changed, by the way. Automate your savings so that you can make the (perhaps somewhat painful) decision not to spend a single time but reap the benefits for years to come.

Don’t fret too much about this. You’ve probably noticed that when you get a raise, you don’t necessarily feel much wealthier than you were before. That’s because we tend to increase our spending to the level of our income. But we can adapt down as well. In fact, after the recent two-year-long payroll tax holiday was ended, research showed that half of Americans didn’t even notice that 2% had disappeared from their paychecks. What that says to me is that half of us could likely save 2% more and not notice that either. Assume you’re among them and increase your deferrals into tomorrow’s stash.

Focus on your progress. When you buy something you want, you have the benefit of being able to see it. You can sit in a new car, wear a new dress, and get complimented by your friends on both. That sort of satisfaction is harder to come by with the balance in your 401(k). Try to replicate it anyway. Make a once a month appointment to check in with your burgeoning balances. Then, Yarrow suggests, plug your numbers into a savings calculator like the one, to see that at, a return of 8%, that $2000 you’re putting away this year will be worth 10 times that much 30 years from now.

Know what you want. Finally, Yarrow notes, for most people “a big wad of money is meaningless. It’s not a mortgage payment. It’s not food. It’s kind of amorphous.” She’s totally right. So – despite the fact that you may change your mind in the future – do yourself a solid and save for something tangible. A week in Hawaii? A house in the mountains? Doesn’t matter one bit. What does matter is that it’s something likely to make your brain light up.

Jean Chatzky

About Jean Chatzky

Jean Chatzky, the financial editor for NBC’s TODAY show, is an award-winning personal finance journalist, AARP’s personal finance ambassador, and a contributing editor for Fortune magazine. Jean is a best-selling author; her eighth and most recent book is Money Rules: The Simple Path to Lifelong Security. She believes knowing how to manage our money is one of the most important life skills for people at every age and has made it her mission to help simplify money matters, increasing financial literacy both now and for the future. In April 2013 Jean launched Jean Chatzky's Money School , a series of college-style, interactive online personal finance courses that give men and women across the country the opportunity to learn from and interact directly with her. Jean lives with her family in Westchester County, New York.
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