“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.