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When it comes to money matters, our brains are actually wired to do it all wrong

Dr. Brad Klontz, financial psychologist
Jamie Grill | Getty Images

Why is it so difficult for people to do the right thing when it comes to money?

We know what we should do — save for the future, track our spending and avoid credit card debt, for example. But for many of us there is a gap between what we know we should do and our behaviors. This knowledge-behavior gap can damage our financial health and leave us feeling ashamed, discouraged and hopeless.

So if we know what we should be doing around money, why is it so hard to make it happen?

It turns out that, when it comes to money matters, we are wired to do it all wrong. Our brains have evolved over thousands of years to focus on short-term survival in a dangerous world with limited resources. They were not designed for today's optimal financial behaviors.

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In terms of our instincts, the question isn't why we do the wrong things around money. That is normal. The real anomaly is why any of us do the right thing. It turns out that when we are doing what we should do around money we are overriding our natural impulses.

Many of our chronic struggles with money make perfect sense when we picture ourselves in the environment for which our brains have been optimized — as a member of a small group of closely related migratory people in a world of scarcity and constant threat. That is the context in which our brains have evolved. Our instincts are designed to help us survive and thrive under those conditions.

So why is it so hard to save?

We just aren't wired to save for the future. For our ancestors, there was little point in saving.

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After all, they could only save what they could carry with them and saving one of their most precious resources — food — was nearly impossible. It would quickly spoil. So, in evolutionary terms, it was much better for our ancestors to consume as much as they could as quickly as they could. They lived in a feast or famine world where malnutrition and starvation were constant threats. Their instinct to consume as much as possible was passed down to us and helps explain our struggles around overspending (and overeating). Saving is a relatively new concept, which requires us to consciously override our natural impulse to consume.

To be financially successful, we not only need to develop a habit of saving, we need to become hoarders of money. Financial security is not achieved by just saving some money for tomorrow, next week or next month. It requires us to create a hoard of money kept in a safe place where it can grow for decades on end.

Our prehistoric survival required us to share our resources not to hoard them just for ourselves. It was expected that when a hunter brought in some meat that it would be shared with the group. This, of course, helped protect the hunter, too, who may not be so lucky in their efforts next time. Their willingness to share increased the chances of their own survival as it would inspire others to share with them in times of need. As such, the sharing mindset was passed down to future generations.

Overriding our natural impulses is needed to meet the financial demands of modern society, which require us to delay gratification, save money and build wealth.
Dr. Brad Klontz
financial psychologist

A huge hurdle for many savers is becoming okay with the idea that they are saving money while those around them — people they care deeply about —may not be doing so well financially. The instinct for most people, especially people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, is to share what they have and not be "selfish" when others are in need.

To save for the long term, people need to find a way to temper the sharing instinct. Often, this requires dedicating a portion of one's income to charitable pursuits and/or adopting the mindset that even more can be done to make the world a better place if one is able to become wealthier. Regardless of the rationale, amassing wealth requires the individual to justify why it is okay for them to have money while others do not.

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Overriding our natural impulses is needed to meet the financial demands of modern society, which require us to delay gratification, save money and build wealth.

We are hard-wired to do all the wrong things when it comes to money. Financial success requires ongoing conscious efforts to override our impulses to allow ourselves to save money. Our financial health depends on it.

— By Dr. Brad Klontz, a certified financial planner, financial psychologist and an associate professor of practice in financial psychology and behavioral finance at Creighton University Heider College of Business. He is a member of the CNBC Financial Wellness Council.

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