What Neuroscience Says About Making Financial Decisions

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This post is in collaboration with BetterHelp.

Picture of a hard, plastic brain in a blue room. The brain is lit up mostly red with one section near the back lit up green.

Over the past several decades, our knowledge of neuroscience has skyrocketed. With it, our understanding of mental health has also expanded

Understanding how our brain works physically has major implications in the field of psychology. Understanding how our brain is physically wired can help us rewire mental workarounds. It can also tell us what medication may help alleviate the physical chemistry going on in our brains when necessary.

Because so much of our financial behaviors are based on our psychology and past experiences, this increased knowledge in the field of neuroscience can also help us make better decisions with our money.

Neuroscience and financial decision making

A 2017 study sponsored by Northwestern Mutual measured neural activity during the decision-making process. Some of the study participants were given assistance as they were making financial decisions. Others were left to make those decisions on their own.

Those that did not receive assistance experienced:

  • 20% more stress and difficulty when making a decision.
  • 28% less understanding of their financial decisions.
  • 21% less relaxed when making those financial decisions.

The study even included brain scans, visually showing the difference in brain functioning between the two groups.

The neuroscience shows that simply having someone to guide you through the process lessens your anxiety levels when making financial decisions. It helps you understand those decisions better, and can thus result in better results.

Ways to get assistance with financial decision making

How does one get this assistance that the neuroscience showed to be so important?

There are several ways to seek financial assistance. The best one for you will depend on your budget and the specific financial decision you’re trying to make.

Financial advisors and coaches

If you have money to spend on professional help, you can look for people with letters after their name.

For example, if you want help filing your taxes, you could look for a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) or enrolled agent (EA) with the IRS.

If you’re planning for retirement and have a complex array of financial products, you may want to find a Certified Financial Planner (CFP) or Certified Financial Advisor (CFA).

If you just need help getting your day-to-day money on track and want one-on-one attention, you might look for a coach who has their Certified Financial Education Instructor (CFEI) or Accredited Financial Counselor (AFC) certification.

Purchasing a home

If you participate in a first-time homebuyer program, you will often be required to complete a first-time homebuyer education course.

This may seem like just another hoop to jump through. But it’s often a positive thing for you as a buyer. You get access to that assistance that neuroscience has shown to be so important. And you get it through a unique process you’re only likely to go through a couple times in your life.

Day-to-day finances

You might need specific help with a specific financial problem. But if you just need general money advice, turning to financial influencers you trust can be a good way to get the support you need.

For example, when Tiffany Aliche launched the first Live Richer Challenge, she did so using her background in early childhood education. She gives participants one thing to do per day. A bite-sized task instead of a list of overwhelming decisions.

By the time you get to the end of the initial course, you have a budget, a finger on the pulse of your spending habits, and an idea of what it will take to get out of debt.

The Northwestern study showed that this tactic achieves the goal of alleviating stress. Your brain doesn’t have to worry or get overwhelmed with big decisions. It can focus on the one task in front of it, increasing your motivation as you successfully complete each task, building momentum and confidence along the way.

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