Turns out you may not be as financially responsible as you think

When it comes to matters of personal finance, we’re all a bit biased. That’s the main finding of a fascinating new study just released by the University of Notre Dame. Researchers say that people almost always consider themselves to be more responsible with their money than they are in reality.

“Collectively, this work shows that people view their financial responsibility through rose-colored glasses, which can undermine their financial well-being,” explains study author Emily Garbinsky, assistant professor of marketing at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, in a release. “People around the world are not saving enough money, and we propose that one reason they under-save is because they falsely believe themselves to be financially responsible.”

We all have that one friend who just can’t help but take out their wallet at every opportunity, even though you know they can’t afford their spending habits. The newest shoes? They bought them the first day they were available. That fancy restaurant that just opened? They ate there last week. It’s hard to believe, but according to these findings, even that friend believes in their mind that they’re responsible with money. 

On a similar note, your friend may be thinking the same thing about you whenever you make an impulse buy. It’s much easier to be critical of other people’s spending habits because we don’t know what they’re telling themselves internally to justify the purchases. “Oh, well I’ve been looking for this for ages” or “this is pricey, but just think about how great I’ll look, it’s worth it.” 

Regarding personal money management, we all tend to take a softer approach. Even on a subconscious level, recent research has shown time and time again that the human brain does its best to shield us from inconvenient truths and harsh realities. No one wants to believe they are incapable of managing their own bank account, so they don’t believe it. It’s as simple as that, and countless people don’t let the truth get in the way of some retail therapy.

“People generally hold positive illusions of being financially responsible, because this enables them to feel good about themselves,” Professor Garbinsky adds.

Financial management is a big part of carving out a happy and successful life for oneself, so what can be done to address this troubling monetary trend? In an effort to help people recognize unhealthy spending habits, the team at Notre Dame got together with scientists from York University and the University of New England in Australia to create a specialized questionnaire.

The idea behind the intervention survey is that people will slowly realize they’ve been spending far too much on unnecessary items as they fill out the questionnaire. The hope is that eventually, that realization will lead to better money management in the future.

The survey entails five questions followed by a hypothetical savings decision. Each question focuses on superfluous spending habits, for example: “how often do you go out to dinner instead of cooking at home?”. The person filling out the survey must answer the questions using a numeric scale of one to seven, with one indicating once a year or never and seven equaling 12+ times annually.

Study authors purposely designed the intervention questions so that most people, even those only moderately irresponsible with money, would end up recording responses that fell in the upper range of the numeric scale (four-seven). This was done to encourage more sweeping changes to financial habits; researchers believe most people must reassess their spending and saving.

“Deflating this inflated self-view may increase saving, as people should become motivated to restore perceptions of financial responsibility,” concludes professor Garbinsky.

Self-protective thinking is something we all engage in daily without even realizing it. It isn’t always necessarily bad, self-protective thoughts are what allow us to keep our chin up after making a costly mistake or suffering a lapse in judgment. Concerning money matters, though, perhaps we should all be a bit tougher on ourselves. Our collective wallets and bank accounts will thank us in the long-run.

The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Marketing.