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Why you can blame your over-spending on your inner ape

psychology of spending over-spending ape

Follow these four key steps to tame your inner ape and help you stick to your financial resolutions

With a few days’ holiday in January and time to clear our minds, many of us articulated some resolutions that were made with good intentions.

But now, just weeks later, those resolutions seem like a distant memory. It’s as if the person who made the commitments on holidays is different from the one who makes decisions day to day. Why is that?

Well, largely because they were made by someone different, or at least with a different part of the brain to the one making most of the decisions. You made the new year’s resolution but your “ape” (your reactive self) is running the show when you’re back in everyday life.

You and your ape is a way of explaining how we process information and make sense of the world. You (the person who made your new year’s resolution) are a calm, contemplative, rational decision maker.

However, when we head back into our busy lives we tend to rely on our ape to make decisions for us.

Our ape is the most primitive part of our brain, the first to develop in the womb and the part responsible for our survival instinct (fight or flight). It is our instinct, our intuitive, reactive self.

When we spend, often it’s our ape that is calling the shots. Our ape is a creature of habit, which is especially true of our spending habits. Most of our discretionary spending is usually focused on making our ape feel good in the short term.

Think of that almond croissant when we grab a coffee, or the pride we feel when we pay extra for a prestige brand (and justify it after the fact as being of higher quality).

Your ape reacts instinctively and emotionally to the world around it, whereas “you” tend to respond in a more rational way.

The less in control of your ape, the less likely you are to be able to keep those new year’s resolutions you remember being so committed to. At the end of a big day, can you cook dinner instead of getting a takeaway?

Who is actually in charge at the moment of your choices – your ape or you? Are you reacting or responding?

The good news is the more we are aware of our ape, the more we can control it and the more we can control our finances.

This is true for anyone, irrespective of socioeconomic status, education, IQ or life experience.

People who are better at taming their ape are better at saving money, curbing spending and delaying gratification (forgoing something in the immediate for something better in the future).

These four behaviours will work for almost anyone when changing financial habits and sticking to financial resolutions.

First, identify and remove one big barrier. Ask yourself: if my income halved overnight, what would I have to cut out to make ends meet?

List everything you would cut out and seriously consider whether you really need them. Mentally take them all out of your life and only put them back if they’re more important to you than your goal.

Second, take your own advice. Before you make any unplanned purchases, ask yourself: “What would myself, one year from now, advise that I do right now?”

This shifts our focus from the immediate feeling to the longer-term perspective. Wisdom is often simply learning to take our own advice.

Third, break big goals down into smaller, achievable behaviours. For instance, if you are looking to save $5000 in the next 12 months, see if you can save $20 this week.

Then double it next week, and so on. Small wins help hard-wire a positive feeling towards saving money, which helps you say no to that bucket of ice-cream or that new leather bag you feel you deserve.

Finally, create an environment that works for your goals. If you are on a health kick, the last thing you should do is fill your fridge with junk food.

In the same way, creating habits like putting a percentage of your income into an account that isn’t linked to a spending card, or entertaining friends at home rather than going to restaurants helps your ape make better decisions when you’re mentally exhausted.

Working on routines that work toward your goals help train your ape, so your ape actually works for you.

Written by Phil Slade

Phil Slade

Phil Slade is behavioural economist and psychologist for Suncorp, works across digital innovation, strategy, cognitive bias and human-centred design with a key focus on delivering new and improved customer experiences. He has more than 15 years’ industry experience.

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