8 Ways to Motivate Yourself to Save for Retirement

Retirement researchers are examining what causes us to save for the future.

Older couple painting on a canvas outdoors

Motivating yourself to save for a retirement that's decades in the future can be a daunting challenge. Behavioral researchers are testing exactly what triggers cause people to sign up for retirement accounts and increase their contributions. It turns out that a variety of experiences, including spending time with your grandparents, worrying about problems you could face in old age, and even picturing what you will look like in retirement could pursuade you to boost your retirement account contributions. Here's what researchers say motivates us to save for retirement:

Break it down into steps. Instead of focusing on the final account balance you will need for a comfortable retirement, figure out how much you need to save each week or month. "It gives you something in the immediate future to focus on rather than something in the distant future that you may or may not be able to relate to," says Nicole Votolato Montgomery, an assistant professor of marketing at the College of William and Mary's Mason School of Business. Her recent online survey showed 750 individuals an advertisement encouraging them to save for retirement, then asked how much they intended to save as a percentage of their salary. Young workers between ages 18 and 34 said they were going to save the largest portion of their salary (20 percent) when the advertisement told them the biweekly dollar amount they need to save for a secure retirement. In contrast, young employees presented with a long-term retirement contribution goal said they would save 14 percent of their pay for retirement.

Project your retirement income. Consider calculating the annual income your current nest egg is likely to produce in retirement. A recent study of 16,881 University of Minnesota employees sent some workers a four-page color brochure with a customized projection of the additional annual retirement income that would be generated if they saved more. Among employees who adjusted their retirement-savings contributions, those who received retirement-income projections saved $1,152 more per year than people who didn't receive the mailing. "By providing the individuals with projections about how much income they will have on an annual basis in their retirement, they actually save more. We're helping them to better understand their return on their savings," says Colleen Flaherty Manchester, an assistant professor for the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. "People often get intimated and overwhelmed by a huge number. When they see how much it actually translates into, they are maybe more motivated to make decisions."

Don't set your goal too low. "People who want to save more should focus on ambitious targets," says Emily Haisley, a behavioral finance specialist for the wealth and investment management division of Barclays. For her research, employees at a large technology company were sent several versions of an e-mail pointing out that they could earn a bigger 401(k) match if they set a savings goal of either $7,000 or $11,000 for the year. The higher goal raised contribution rates by 2.2 percent of income. E-mails that pointed out the maximum possible 401(k) contribution amount ($16,500 at the time) also pushed up savings rates by 1.5 percent of pay. "You should save when the inspiration strikes and not worry about having to back off a bit later on," says Haisley.

Consider the negative consequences of failing to save. Instead of focusing on the travel or golf you'll enjoy in retirement, it may be more effective to focus on the negative consequences of failing to save, says Montgomery. "Younger workers are probably thinking about how great retirement is going to be. If you can reverse your mindset a little bit by thinking about some of the negative things that could happen, I think that can be very effective," she says. "Focusing on some of the things that will happen if you don't reach that goal can be an effective tool in encouraging workers to save. Failing to save can lead to a retirement that is not as enjoyable."