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Don't fall for this trick question — get smarter about your money

Key Points
  • You know you need to save money, but are you going about it the right way?
  • Emotions can get in the way, says financial psychologist Brad Klontz.
  • Here are some guidelines for making smarter decisions.
David-Prado | iStock | Getty Images

You know you need to save money. You try to look for the best deals. But are you really going about it the right way?

Maybe not.

In a new CNBC and Acorns Invest In You Savings Survey , a majority of respondents fell for this trick question: Would you rather get 10% off a $100 item or drive five miles out of your way and get 20% off a $50 item? Of those polled, 51% chose going out of their way for what they thought was a better deal. However, the savings were the same.

Females were more likely to go for the 20% savings, with 55% of them choosing that option, versus 50% of men. The number was higher for single women who never married.

IIY Would you rather 

Financial psychologist and certified financial planner Brad Klontz said people tend to make money decisions from their emotional brain, not their rational one.

"We have a very hard time understanding and being motivated by abstract ideas," he said. So when you start throwing percentages around, "it's really easy for us to make a dumb decision or … one that isn't in line with our best interest," he added. "It starts to get abstract."

Getting it right is important, especially if you are among the vast majority of Americans who manage their own finances. According to the survey, 75% do so.

That means getting your mind around the concept of money and saving, said Klontz, co-founder of Your Mental Wealth and the Financial Psychology Institute.

"Money is the biggest stressor in the lives of Americans — hands down," he said.

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However, stress and anxiety are only part of the equation. Education also plays a role. Just like people need to learn how to drive, they need to learn how to manage their money, said CFP Lazetta Braxton, founder and CEO of Financial Fountains.

"For a lot of people, it feels like it's supposed to be common sense but often times it's just not" she said. "It's its own body of knowledge."

When broken down by age, older Americans were less likely to fall for the trick question, while younger people were more susceptible. There were also differences seen in income levels — those making less than $50,000 a year were more likely to go for the 20% deal.

IIY Would you rather gender 

The survey found that overall, Americans are feeling more optimistic about saving for retirement — although saving for retirement is still the top overall personal finance concern. The survey, which polled 2,381 adults about their financial wellness, was conducted for CNBC by SurveyMonkey in March.

Sorting out your finances

The statistics show that many people need help when it comes to understanding their finances and how to save for retirement. According to a recent study by Bankrate, 21% of working Americans aren't saving anything at all.

Then there is debt. The latest Federal Reserve numbers show that outstanding consumer debt is now more than $4 trillion.

Money is the biggest stressor in the lives of Americans — hands down.
Brad Klontz
Financial psychologist

The most important thing to do in order to get a grasp on your financial situation is to understand what is coming in, such as your paychecks from work and maybe a side hustle, and what is going out — like a mortgage, car payment and credit card bills.

Also think about what matters most to you and what your savings goals are.

"If you like to go shopping or do fun activities, then you have to figure out how much that costs and what are the tradeoffs … what are you going to give up," said Braxton "You can't have it all.

"There is a finite amount of money you have," she added.

IIY Would you rather age 

If you get that right, then you can look at what's left over and see what you can invest or save.

There are also psychological aspects. In fact, Klontz said psychology is the No. 1 factor when it comes to making financial decisions.

Part of the problem is the shame involved with money struggles, said Klontz, the author of a number of books, including "Mind Over Money."

"A big barrier to moving forward is feeling ashamed because we all know better," he said. "That shame leads to people wanting to avoid even thinking about the topic.

"Therefore they don't even get a chance to act on it."

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He suggests using visualization techniques, such as picturing your ideal retirement and how it feels. By creating a visual representation of your goals, you are more likely to save, he said. In fact, his research found that people who became emotionally engaged increased their savings by 67%, while those who were taught standard financial literacy only increased their savings by 22%.

If you do that and find success, then capitalize on that excitement to automate actions — like automatic contributions to your 401(k) or an auto transfer from a checking account to a savings account, Klontz said.

"The chances are you probably won't go back and change that because of the status quo bias," he said, referring to the fact that it takes less energy to keep going then make a change.

"If you can capitalize on that … before you know it, you achieve your goals."

Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.

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