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Why You Can’t Seem to Save Money (or Lose Weight)

Ryan Ong

Ryan Ong

Last updated 31 August, 2017

To succeed at saving money, losing weight or other will-driven tasks, managing ego-depletion is crucial.

What does weight loss have to do with saving money? The answer lies in ego-depletion, a psychological phenomenon of having limited willpower.

Due to the way ego-depletion works, some willpower-driven tasks are inherently harder than others. Here’s why the spirit is always willing, but the flesh is always weak.

candy jar with colorful candies

What is Ego-depletion?

Ego-depletion was studied by University of Florida Professor Roy Baumeister in the 1990s. In an experiment, two groups of people were deprived of food for several hours. Later, they were each exposed to the sight and scent of cookies and different types of candy.

One group was allowed to pig out; the other was asked to resist temptation, and eat radishes instead. When they were both given (unsolvable) puzzles later, the group that ate radishes quit much faster than the group that was allowed to indulge.

This is one example of ego-depletion: we all have a limited store of willpower, which is depleted every time we must exert self-control.

When you refrain from saying something angry, skip lunch to catch up on work, or resist going on Facebook to finish your spreadsheets, you exert willpower. This leaves less willpower to go around for other things, such as forcing yourself to diet, or to save money.

Given that the average human being spends three to four hours exercising restraint every day, it’s no surprise that many of us have “nothing left in the tank”, when it comes to making ourselves exercise or budget.

Even worse, our minds don’t seem to vary the amount of willpower exerted; it “costs” as much willpower to resist one extra cup of coffee, as it does to set aside 20 per cent of your monthly pay.

So we understand that willpower is limited; but what is it that makes some tasks - such as losing weight or saving money - seem much more difficult? The answer is that...

lady working out in gym

Not Every Task Reward Previous Exertions of Willpower

Let’s use exercising and dieting as an example (we’ll explain how this relates to saving money later). The application of willpower is a lot more effective in exercise, than it is in dieting. Here’s why:

From the moment you exert willpower to start exercising, your body begins to burn calories, build muscle, and so forth.

Each time you resist the temptation to stop exercising, you gain accumulative benefits. If on the 10th time you push yourself to exercise, but fail, you’ve still gained the benefits: you still lost all that weight from the previous exercise sessions.

With dieting, things are not that efficient. In the span of an hour (or sometimes minutes), you may resist the temptation to reach out and grab a french fry more than 20 times.

But if you eventually give in and eat the french fries, you’ve taken on the calories: all your previous attempts at self-control are simply wasted.

Now, notice how the same thing relates to budgeting. You can resist spending money on a bag or console 10 times, 20 times, or even 30 times. But the one time you give in, it undoes all your previous efforts - the money is gone.

With some tasks, there is relatively less accumulation of reward, for expending willpower. There is some reward, in that you postpone the use of the money, or that you resist taking in unnecessary calories a while longer; but it’s nowhere near as tangible as the reward of, say, climbing a mountain (every exertion of willpower takes you tangibly closer to the peak).

woman sleeping in bed

3 Strategies to Cope with Ego-depletion

There are numerous theories on how to cope with ego-depletion. These are:

  • Accessing a larger store of willpower
  • Expending willpower more consciously 
  • Removing the need for willpower

Accessing a Larger Store of Willpower

There is no proven way to increase your willpower, although some evidence favour consuming more glucose, to getting more sleep. Two things are clear, however:

The first is that healthy people seem to have a larger store of willpower; if for no reason other than that they don’t have to spend willpower to stave off pain, or go for unpleasant medical treatment. Take care of your body, and your capacity for self-control will increase.

The second is that, when you have a higher goal or motive, you can tap deeper stores of willpower (or perhaps your willpower replenishes faster from the positive vibes, it’s uncertain).

For example, many single parents can somehow find the reserves to work two or even three jobs, whereas the average person would find that to be too much.

If you set a higher goal - such as being able to provide a better retirement for your parents - you may find you have more “fuel” in the tank.

Expending Willpower More Consciously

You can strategise your use of willpower. For example, if you know you have a ton of important work tomorrow, you might want to allow yourself to indulge in that ice-cream tonight.

Or, if you decide you want to lose weight, you could set “cheat days” when you can have that bucket of fried chicken, while your stores of willpower recharge.

With regard to money, it’s a matter of focus: try to cut down expenses in two or three specific areas (e.g. dining, transport, and movies), rather than by trying to control every single activity according to a budget. You’re more likely to find success in saving money this way.

In short, allow yourself to relax on occasion - try to reserve your willpower for important situations.

Removing the Need for Willpower

The best way to overcome a lack of willpower? Find a way to not require it. For example, play a sport that you like, instead of forcing yourself onto a treadmill for an hour.

When it comes to budgeting, try something cheaper and see if you like it more.

If your tendency is to go to restaurants, why not try a “hawker food” month, where you explore something more local (and cheaper)? If you like movies, maybe try Netflix instead of the cinema for a month.

You will likely find that switching to a lower-cost substitute, or learning to enjoy something cheaper, is easier than trying to build up your willpower.

Read This Next:

Is Insurance An Expense Or An Asset?

Does Every Singaporean Need Disability Income Insurance?

Ryan has been writing about finance for the last 10 years. He also has his fingers in a lot of other pies, having written for publications such as Men’s Health, Her World, Esquire, and Yahoo! Finance.


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