It’s not your fault you can’t save money

Have your parents ever told you that you should clean your plate, there are starving children in Africa?

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I recently found out this little saying transcends borders. Parents everywhere say the same thing! And I thought it was only Asian parents.

When it comes to food, we like to fantasize that we are the master of our own food choices. We might eat a little more if the food is good, but overall we only “eat till we’re full”.

The real reason we can’t stop eating

Dr. Brian Wansink, professor and director of the famed Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, is here to crush your cherished food beliefs.

He and his team conducted an experiment in Chicago during a Mel Gibson movie (yes, Mel Gibson was once Mad Max instead of the raging, racist lunatic he is now). Researchers gave every movie-goer an indivudal bucket of popcorn so there wasn’t any need to share. The only “catch”?

The popcorn was 5 days old and so stale it “squeaked” when they reached for it.

The magic of mindless eating

During the movie, people would eat a couple of bites, think it tasted like flavored packing peanuts and put the bucket down. Only to pick it up again a few minutes later, have a couple more bites just to remind themselves how crap it tasted and put it back down. Rinse and repeat. They know it tasted like crap but these people just couldn’t leave it alone!

When the people given the large buckets handed over their leftover popcorn, they were asked, “Some people tonight were given medium-size buckets of popcorn, and others, like yourself, were given these large-size buckets. We have found that the average person given a large-size container eats more than if they are given a medium-size container. Do you think you ate more because you had the large size?”

Tricks only work on other people, not me?

Most disagreed. Some were rather smug about it. And they said things like, “That wouldn’t happen to me,” “Things like that don’t trick me,” or “I’m pretty good at knowing when I’m full.”

If you’ve follow this site, you’ll know they were very wrong. The big-bucket group clocked out at 173 more calories of popcorn on average. What happened? They weren’t hungry as they all just had lunch. It was a matinee show. The quality of the food was not in question as well. So why did they keep eating the popcorn?

The conditioning handed down over generations

We’ve all been conditioned not to waste food. So when they give us a lot, we’ll eat a lot.

Do we ever stop to contemplate whether we should take that next bite?

I’ll let you in on a secret. I was once 90 kilos and at a height of 170 cm, my BMI could be described as “fat bastard”. Weight gain doesn’t happen over night. It creeps up on us, a hundred calories here or there that we never notice. Before we know it, we are 20 kg heavier and it’s “Whoa, who’s this guy in the mirror?”.

Think back to the times where our parents kept drumming into us that we should clean our plate to “save” the starving children in Africa. Food wastage is a sin! These food habits passed down from our parents influence us far more than we think.

Why I was compelled to eat everything

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My Asian parents drummed this “don’t waste food” saying into me and it affects my eating habits till today. I simply cannot let food go to waste. If I over-order, then I over eat. If my wife over-orders and can’t finish, I have to eats hers too. Not want to. Have to.

Even after I realized years later that how much I eat has no effect on the starving children of Africa, I simply couldn’t let the food go to “waste”. It was so deeply ingrained I never realized it was a problem until a friend pointed it out. Imagine you’re trying to lose weight but you eat everything! Trying to lose weight with this script embedded in me was like a non-salmon fish trying to swim upstream.

The power of invisible scripts

These invisible scripts are so deeply ingrained within us we don’t even know they deeply influence our behaviors. It’s because they pass through our minds completely undetected. But the scripts we adopt have the power to shape our lives when it comes to managing our money.

Over time, negative scripts become dangerous psychological traps that hold us back. Let’s take a look at just one of them to see how dangerous it can be.

Trap: I need to “figure this out”

This trap is subtle because it makes sense logically. We’re uninformed so we need more information before we take action. Look at all these young people becoming a slave to credit card debt. We need to start teaching this information in school. Preferably when they’re in Secondary school.

Did you just put a bunch of kids asleep while explaining compound interest?

The brutal truth is: information alone is the WORST way to change behaviour.

We already know what we need to do. Do you think I didn’t know I was overweight? That I should eat less and exercise more? I did. But I’ve also rationalized my behavior in my head so I didn’t need to take action.

When I hit 90 kg, I just told myself, you come from a extended family of sumo sized people. There’s nothing I can do about it! I already eat like a bird (in truth, I did eat like a type of bird, a T-rex is technically a bird ancestor so…). Let me Google more information on diets and exercise plans to overwhelm myself. Then I’ll think really hard about a course of action based and sit around waiting for the weight loss to happen.

It’s great to get more information and there’s nothing wrong with having a plan of action. But too many of us fall at this last step of actually putting those plans in motion.

Solution: Stop the research and take action

The false belief that “we need more information before we can take action” is a careful mask for procrastination. I’m not saying finding out more information is bad. But not taking action on the information we’ve found will get you NO RESULTS.

Every year we put off getting started saving and investing puts a huge dent in our long-term financial plans.

Let’s look at some illustrations below, I’ve used a fairly conservative 6.5% return for the STI index and a 200 dollars savings a month.

Kareful Kelly Addled Aksel
Invests 200 a month at age 25 Doesn’t invest at age 25
Has $34,491.74 at age 35 Has 0 at age 35
Stops investing and relaxes Panics and invests 200 a month
She has $262,632.74 at age 65 He has $220,774.15 at age 65

Kareful Kelly starts at age 25 and invests 200 a month for 10 years and stops investing, she simply lets the money grow until she retires at age 65. Addled Aksel starts only at age 35 and invests 200 dollars a month until he retires at age 65. Although, Addled Aksel has invested 3 times as long (with 3 times the principal for you math-sy types), he’s behind by more than 40k! No magic, just math.

It’s not your fault if you can’t save money, you just haven’t been aware of the scripts that influence your behavior. Take action now, don’t wait any longer!

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