Do you have the savings gene?

“It doesn’t really matter if you are left behind at the back… what matters is your capacity to pull and push to the front.” – Michael Bassey Johnson

When it comes to saving there’s no doubt that some people find it far easier than others. Based on my observations and conversations during individual and group sessions over the past few years, I’d say that the natural born savers are definitely in the minority. However, whether a person’s ability to save is more a result of their genetics than the influence of those around them is a question that has been hotly debated for a long time.

The Savings Gene

A recent paper, published in the Journal of Political Economy, concluded that 33% of the differences in our saving and investment decisions are determined by genetics rather than environment. The research study centered on 33 sets of identical and fraternal twins and it found that parental influences can help shape our early savings habits. However, this influence starts to fade when children leave home in their early 20s and is almost undetectable by age 40. Consequently, the paper suggests that it is more likely that our genetic programming rather than our parental programming has the biggest impact on our ability to save.

The researchers suggested that the strength of the “savings gene” is connected to a person’s level of self-control: in the study they found that those with greater self-control were better savers than those who struggled with issues such as obesity and smoking. This conclusion bothered me because, to me, suggesting that people who struggle with weight or addiction issues are simply weak-willed is far too simplistic an answer for a complex issue. My personal perspective (which has absolutely no scientific basis) is that every action has a consequence: if we make poor choices we create poor consequences, if we make positive choices we create positive consequences. However, our choices are often influenced by our emotions, our circumstances, our psychology and our physical state and so, unless we have a strong enough drive to make a positive choice, it can be easier or more pleasurable to make a poor one. We are also creatures of habit so once we get into the habit of making poor choices a habit it can be a very hard cycle to break: knowing that something is a bad idea isn’t necessarily enough to stop us doing it.

What About Willpower?

What piqued my interest about this study was that it suggested saving is really about willpower which makes a lot of sense to me. Unfortunately, while some of us might be lucky enough to have been born with cast-iron willpower and an abundance of “get up and go”, most of us are not. Happily, there is plenty of research to suggest that willpower can be weakened and strengthened in much the same way that a muscle can. This means that whether you’re trying to build wealth, lose weight or learn something new, if you focus on strengthening your willpower then you’re more likely to achieve your goal and the journey will be quicker and easier. In next week’s post, I’ll share some tips for boosting your willpower that can be used for financial and personal goals.

While the research seems to align with what a number of us have already experienced – some people just seem to find it easier to save than others I don’t think that it’s necessarily a “get out of jail free” card for those of us who don't have the savings gene. Taking the attitude that, “I can’t save, it’s just not in my DNA!” is dangerous because we live in a world where good money management is a basic survival skill. Not being good at something that is critical to our success can only work against us in the long run and so it makes sense to do something about it. If you don't have the savings gene, there’s plenty you can do to overcome it: financial security is a question of choice not destiny.

Written by Sarah Milton

Sarah Milton is currently stretching her professional wings in Edmonton, Alberta in a role that allows her to combine her talent for writing and speaking with her training in the financial services industry. She is passionate about inspiring people to get excited about their money and empowering them to take control of their financial future. You can follow Sarah on Twitter @5arahMilton

3 Responses to Do you have the savings gene?

  1. The Savings Gene.

    Is it Willpower or Motivation?

    I am not a spender, but I try to buy quality. My Willpower is weak (I was trying to find a pleasant euphemism here).

    But I dread being broke, despise consumer interest and fees. Therefore my Motivation – my frugal gene – is strong.

    In the end, I’m not a saver as in putting money away; but I will wait for a bargain for a product or service.

    Money put away, saved, gets spent eventually. Always.

    My Motivation morphed into making money with the money I put away to hopefully retain those savings while using them to make money.

    Today, retired, I no longer earn money so saving money has also morphed somewhat. The money I make using the savings of the past is used for day-to-day expenses, a trip every few years, a recent new TV. Some months I put money away to increase my retirement capital, to put it to work to make more money.

    I was aware decades ago that I really couldn’t save that much because of my level of earnings and long-term obligations. So I saved by not overspending, doing without, and never paying interest on anything, including cars – my motivation.

    Parents’ influence will go just so far. There are some behaviours that stay with us forever but we all learn new ones along the way, some good some not so good. Darwinism, isn’t it?

  2. We do our best to take willpower out of it, that way it works with our without the savings gene. Our 401k/IRA’s max without us ever seeing the money. That way no decision power is necessary.

    I guess you could say that it took the savings gene to make that decision, but at least once you do it once, no more effort.

    • Adam,

      By distancing people from the process of planning and acting and deciding about their retirement is a mistake.

      People think it’s someone else’s responsibility, that it’s simple, that a Madoff situation won’t happen, that retirement is a guaranteed ride into the sunset.

      When you drive your car, grocery shop, pick a vacation spot, buy a shirt, etc, you make plans, choices, decisions.

      You must be involved in the retirement process.

Leave a reply