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Will your future self thank you, or curse you?

I don’t remember when my wife and I started talking about our past selves and our future selves, but for years we’ve been doing it as a way to motivate ourselves through tough moments, especially when we’re making our lives difficult in the present to help ourselves in the future.

“My future self had better appreciate this,” we’d say as we pulled old carpets up on New Year’s Eve so we wouldn’t have to do it after we had moved in and put all our furniture on top of it. Or when we set up an automatic direct deposit to a savings account that tended to leave our checking account pretty empty by the time the next paycheck rolled around.

Somehow, picturing our future selves not having to stress about a flat tire or unexpected medical bill made it easier to save in the here and now.

We may have been on to something with that. A 2011 study by researchers from Stanford and New York University published in the Journal of Marketing Research found that showing people an image of themselves that had been altered to look older actually made them more willing to save for the future.

In the study, researchers fitted some participants with a virtual-reality getup that allowed them to look at a 3-D model of their older face in a digital mirror. Afterward, when asked how they would spend a hypothetical $1,000 windfall, participants who had seen their older face in the VR helmet allocated more than twice the amount than the control group toward funding retirement.

In response, Merrill Lynch actually launched a website late last year that would apply crude aging effects to a webcam photo of you to try and convince people to open up an IRA with them.

But corporate marketing aside, the exercise is a good one. Even with tax advantages and employer matches, saving for the future almost always means making sacrifices in the present — less eating out, fewer new clothes, putting off buying a new car. It’s all too easy to shrug your shoulders and say, “screw it.”

But taking a minute to picture in your mind two versions of your future self: one who’s relaxing at home and taking the time to do things you’d never had the chance to do when you were working, and another who is constantly worrying about money, working a part-time job they hate, or any of the other downsides that come with not being prepared for retirement. What do you want for your future self? And does he or she really deserve that second scenario?

(Photo: Flickr user Darren Baldwin)