Tamsyn Parker

Money Editor for NZ Herald

Can't save? Blame it on being human

Nick Southgate, a behavioural economist from Britain, says saving for the long term future can be hard work because it works against human nature.
Nick Southgate, a behavioural economist from Britain, says saving for the long term future can be hard work because it works against human nature.

We all know that we should save to ensure our golden years really do turn out to be what the name suggests but why do we find it so hard to do so?

Behavioural economist Nick Southgate says it's down to our genes.

"One really core problem is that human beings are designed to be more interested in what is happening now than in the future."

Southgate, a Brit with an advertising background, is in New Zealand to talk to the retirement savings industry about human nature and how it affects our decisions.

He says there is a lot of research around what people think they should do and what they actually do when it comes to superannuation.

"If you ask people to think about losing $50 in an hour they get worried. But saving $10,000 in 40 years - it just doesn't register.

"Something really close captures the imagination where as things that far into the future don't make us feel much."

That's a real problem for the financial services industry which is trying to get people to invest for the long term, he says.

"People aren't hard-wired to think vividly about the future. We can bemoan that as much as we like and historically that is what policy-makers have done."

Instead, he says, people need to think about creative ways around it.

One way to do that is to default people into a savings scheme unless they choose to opt out.

"The tool uses our inability to think about the future against us."

It's a tool already in force through New Zealand's retirement savings scheme KiwiSaver.

Another option is to ask people to commit to saving when they next get a pay rise.

"It's really easy to commit to giving up money in the future which you do not already have."

Southgate says studies have shown this also allows people to commit to higher rates of saving and to stick to it.

"In real terms your money goes down but the actual figure doesn't. It uses that inability to think about the future."

Southgate says thinking about approaches like that can be far more effective than incentivising people to save through subsidies and tax breaks.

"Bribing people can be an incredibly expensive option and it may not work."

But he warns that defaulting people into a system to save can also backfire.

"If a minimum savings level is set people will take that to be enough.

"It can have unintended consequences which mean people are under investing or under saving.

"They [defaults] are good because people don't examine them too carefully but they bad because people don't examine them too carefully."

Knowing how much to save is also a real minefield.

"It's very hard to gauge how much we should responsibly save. Most people want to take some responsibility for themselves. But we tend to get fixated on tangible things like property."

One way around this is to tell people if they want to maintain their current lifestyle in retirement they need to have saved a nest egg similar to the value of their property.

"For some this is an instant get it moment. They see it as a kind of back-up retirement plan for their house.

But it's just a number."

And for those who rent and may end up renting for life it's not going to work.

Southgate says Kiwis may need to think about having an independent group to make decisions on KiwiSaver in the future similar to the Reserve Bank, otherwise it could be at risk of becoming a political football.

Whether you are a natural spender or saver also impacts how you interpret savings messages.

Southgate says those who are likely to blow all their money need to hear messages that indicate immediacy .

They may also be convinced by the idea of getting an immediate pay rise from their employer or paying less tax.

"It's all about how to frame and describe money. If you tell people they will get $1000 to put towards a new home they will get excited. If you give people $1000 they may or may not save it and if you give people $100 a week they may just go out and blow it. It is very human."

Southgate says another big challenge for the investment industry is that they treat all average forecasts for investment returns as being trustworthy.

But the public is much more sceptical.

"People not in the market will see them as uncertain. It could be a 4 per cent return or zero per cent. It's incredibly widespread to just report the average."

He says the industry needs to remember that people do not believe those projections like they do and take it into account.

"It's very easy to think people know what they should do."

Nick Southgate will talk at the Workplace Savings National Conference which is being held today and tomorrow in Auckland.

- NZ Herald

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