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Imagining your future self, continued

Last week I wrote about a study that suggested visualizing your future self [3] is a good way to get motivated to save for the future. I had a chance to speak to Hal Hershfield, marketing professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business and one of the authors of the study, about what his work means for all of us trying to whip our finances into shape.

First off, if you have a hard time caring about that wrinkled old person you’ll one day become, you’re not alone. A lot of research suggests that most people have a really hard time prioritizing their financial future over their present wants and needs, Herschfield says.

“One of the reasons why people fail to save in a way that puts themselves in a better position in the future is they fail to feel connected to that distant self who will exist down the line,” Herschfield says. “They fail to vividly imagine what their future selves will want and desire and need, and it’s much easier to think about what you need and desire today.”

This study [4] was largely about trying to see if they could get people around that mental block by showing them a realistic depiction of their future self, in this case, using high-tech virtual reality equipment.

“That’s great for you fancy scientist types,” you might be saying to yourself right now. “But what how can I do that if my house doesn’t look like the set of The Lawnmower Man [5]?”

Herschfield suggests a simple way people can make that same connection: Download an aging app (the one he suggests is called “Aging Booth”) available for smartphones and tablets, and use it to age a picture of your present self. Then, print it out and post it at your desk or wherever you happen to make your big financial decisions.

I tried Aging Booth out, and I think it does a pretty passable job of depicting what I might look like by the time I’m ready to retire. Looking at the picture produced a mix of emotions ranging from sadness to horror to amusement, but I definitely felt a distinct urge to help this poor sap get out of his cubicle and onto his front porch reading Readers Digest and complaining about young people where he belongs.

Unfortunately, Herschfield says that effect may fade over time in the same way that, when you hang a picture in your house, it slowly fades into the background. A longer-lasting tactic may be to build time into every big financial decision to imagine how a transaction would look from your future self’s perspective.

“When you’re making a decision that’s a big financial one, it makes sense to stop for a minute and imagine that your future self is also at the negotiating table, and what sort of voice would you give it.” Herschfield says. “Because, in a way, that’s exactly what’s happening.”

What do you think? Does your future self have a seat at the table when you’re making big financial decisions?