If you're not good at saving, it's not your fault. Humans are hard-wired to focus on the present, so you have thousands of years of evolution to fight against.
But there's a way to win the fight.
1. Make it automatic.
"The most important thing you can do right now," says Beth Kobliner, author of Get a Financial Life, "you should be putting on autopilot your 401(k) at your job, or your 403(b) at your job, or your bank savings account."
Research backs this up. Harvard behavioral economist Brigitte Madrian found that when companies enroll their employees automatically in their retirement savings program, 90 percent of them stick with it.
Kobliner says your goal should be to set aside 15 percent of your income, but if that's too hard, start small — like 2 or 3 percent — then add 2 percent or so a year.
2. Auto-deposit into several different accounts.
Next, split the money you save into different accounts. Kobliner suggests setting up auto-deposits on every paycheck, so that some of your savings goes into a retirement investment account, some into an emergency/buffer fund, some on auto-pay to pay off credit card debt, and some deposited into accounts for vacations or renovations or other fun stuff.
3. Know how to prioritize saving vs. paying down debt.
Should you pay down debt before you start saving? Kobliner says to go by the numbers: Compare cost of the debt to the payback from your savings.
At the top of the list is your workplace retirement account, if your employer offers to match your contributions. If you put in $1,000, you get an additional $1,000 — an immediate 100 percent return on your investment.
Expensive credit card interest is likely your next target on Kobliner's go-by-the-numbers system. Student loan debt might follow, as well as longer-term investments such as your retirement account contributions beyond the employer match.
"Finally, you want to have a little bit of money set aside for a plain old bank account" for emergencies, Kobliner says.
4. Reward yourself for setting up your automatic savings system.
Sometimes it's good to treat yourself, especially if you use it as motivation to save. So, imagine something you want that costs around $200 or $300 — and then, right now, this week, sign up for your company's 401(k) and set up auto deposits into the various accounts mentioned above. Then buy yourself something great as a reward.
Again, research backs up the effectiveness of this tactic. "Giving yourself a small award can be really motivating," Kobliner explains.
5. Imagine your future self.
Picture where you want to be 20 or 30 years down the road. Do you have a mountain cabin? A fishing boat? The simple act of envisioning your future self, research shows, can make you better at saving.
In one study, Stanford University researchers assigned students avatars — but in one group, the avatars were 70 years old. After the students interacted with their avatars, they were asked what they would do with $1,000. Those who had gotten to know their 70-year-old avatars said they would save twice as much of that money as those whose avatars were the same age.
"It's about mind over money," Kobliner says.
6. Start saving young.
The money that you invest early in life can grow to be massive. If you sock away, say, $30,000 by your early 30s, that fund could turn into half a million dollars in retirement.
You might not have much money when you're young, but what you do have is time, and that's valuable if you save and invest in a smart way.
Listen to this and other episodes of Life Kit's Secrets To Saving And Investing podcast.