Researchers measured the brain waves of people asked to make financial decisions, with dramatic results.
Researchers measured the brain waves of people asked to make financial decisions, with dramatic results. Supplied

Simple trick that could save you thousands

WOULD you rather have $200 to spend right now, or $3000 in five years' time?

If you're like most humans, the temptation to grab the money and run is likely to overpower the long-term benefit of investing it for the future.

That's what millions of Australians do when they live from one payday to the next, splurging on avocado brunch, nights out on the town and the latest pair of shoes.

And there's a scientific explanation that could make you feel slightly less guilty about the "spend now, save later" mindset - and a solution that could save you thousands.

"We are wired for now, to be impulsive," neuroscientist Dr Phil Harris told

"It's a hangover from our prehistoric years when the future just wasn't as important."

And, he added, "it's not your fault" if you struggle to save money from your weekly wage.

"Spending really is the default, whereas to be future-focused takes more effort," he said.

It's no wonder two million Australians have less than $1,000 in savings and 46 per cent don't even have a weekly budget.

But all is not lost. In a study he conducted for UBank, the Melbourne University honorary fellow discovered a radical solution to the "prehistoric" thinking that is costing us thousands of dollars in potential savings.


Dr Harris and his research team took 50 ordinary Australians, attached electrodes to their scalps to monitor brain activity, and put them through a range of financial decision-making scenarios.

"They needed to chose between an immediate outcome, spending money now, versus a better outcome in the future," he said.

The choice was between a $120 cash payment in a week's time, and a larger amount in a year. Researchers worked out what the magic number was for each person to be willing to wait it out, to use as their benchmark in the next part of the experiment.

Then came "the intervention", when participants were shown digitally altered images of themselves showing what they would look like in 10 to 20 years' time.

"Generally the response was one of shock," Dr Harris said.

After this had subsided, he said, "we got them to write about things that weren't going to change in the future, like 'in 20 years' time, I'll still have a great sense of humour', or 'I'll still love my family and friends'."

These simple activities had a dramatic effect on the big-spending guinea pigs, and when they were asked to resit the test, the results were completely different.

"They were more future-focused and they cared more about decisions they were making," Dr Harris said.

"After interacting with visualisations of themselves later in life, 72 per cent of participants shifted their mindset towards wanting to save, versus spend money ... It took a significantly lower amount to tempt participants into wanting to save money."

And the brain waves revealed a 150 per cent increase in the amount of attention and mental focus at the time of making the decision between saving or spending.