How to Meet Your Future Self—and Save

Groundbreaking research on how to boost retirement savings uses high-tech digital technology, but you can get the same results at home.

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Have you ever imagined what you’ll look like when you’re 65, or 80? If not, you might want to give it a try—it could boost your retirement savings. Hal Hershfield, assistant professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business, has found that showing people aged photos of themselves makes them more likely to put money away for later

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“Sometimes, people think of their future selves as if they are other people. On an emotional level, your future self might seem like another person to you, almost like a stranger,” says Hershfield. That could help explain why many people have difficulty saving for retirement—the person who will enjoy that savings almost seems like someone else, so why should they deny themselves the pleasure of spending that money today?

In a series of studies conducted with colleagues, Hershfield explored that connection between future selves and savings, and found that the more connected we feel to our future selves, the more likely we are to save. In one study, participants looked at digitally-altered photos of themselves and then answered questions about how they would allocate $1,000 if they were to suddenly receive it. “They allocated twice as much to a long-term savings account if they saw an older version of themselves versus just seeing themselves now,” says Hershfield.

For those looking to replicate those kinds of results at home, the good news is that you don’t need a graphic artist like the one Hershfield used for his study. There are cheaper and easier ways to get in touch with the future you. We asked Hershfield for his ideas on how to apply his groundbreaking research on a smaller scale at home, and he offered these suggestions:

1. Write your future self a letter.

“It maybe sounds a little cheesy, but you can almost imagine writing a letter to your future self or having your future self write a letter to you,” says Hershfield. “It helps create that reality for you and makes that future self more real,” he adds.

2. Ask how your future self would react to decisions.

Stop for a minute before making big purchase decisions and ask yourself, “How will my future self react?” suggests Hershfield. Thirty years from now, will you be glad you splurged on that $5,000 vacation, or $200 jeans? “It’s a good way to get yourself out of the emotional pull of the present,” he says.

It doesn’t necessarily mean practicing self-denial, either. In fact, Hershfield says if he had asked himself that question when he was purchasing his car and deciding whether to pay $1,500 for a sunroof, he probably would have decided to get it. “If I had really thought about it, it wouldn’t have added to the monthly loan much more, and it would have given me more happiness,” he says.

3. Spend more time with your grandparents.

In a way, says Hershfield, grandparents act as proxies for your own future self. “If you have a relationship with your grandparents, for people who are younger, spending time with that person or at least reaching out to them can help you imagine what you’ll be like in the future,” he says. They might look like you and even share similar interests. If you can’t spend time with grandparents, aging parents or older relatives can help as well.

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4. Experiment with aging apps.

While Hershfield’s studies relied on the skill of a graphic artist using Photoshop, there are a few aging apps available, such as AgingBooth, that attempt to show people what they will look like in the future. They don’t create the same quality product as an artist, of course, but technology might improve drastically in coming years.

5. Respect the elderly.

Hershfield’s forthcoming research explores whether there is a connection between respecting the elderly and saving more, and Hershfield says there appears to be, because like grandparents, “the elderly act as a proxy for our future selves.” So perhaps volunteering at a nursing home or finding another way to increase your respect for the elderly could end up boosting your own bottom line at the same time.

Twitter: @alphaconsumer