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Be good to the future you

People shown computer-aged versions of themselves said they'd save more for retirement. By all means, try this at home.

By Donna_Freedman Mar 20, 2012 12:44PM

Image: Adult with elderly parent (© Digital Vision/SuperStock)A study at New York University has put a new face on retirement. Or, rather, an old face. Participants in four money exercises were shown elderly visages, both their own (thanks to age-progression software) and other people's.

Those who saw older faces were willing to put twice as much into long-term savings than participants who saw only younger mugs, according to study co-author Hal Hershfield.

He hopes the study will encourage people to think about who they'll be 40 years down the road. Specifically, he hopes people will "do things now to put that future self in a good position" -- that is, plan for retirement.

So try this little exercise:

  • Look for a free age-progression software program. (Hershfield says "Face of the Future" does an OK job.)
  • Plug in a recent photo.
  • Young You, meet Old You.
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Go ahead and shriek, "Oh, #@!$#, I look just like my grandma/grandpa!" But don't laugh it off. Think about the face you just saw. It's time to start caring about this far-off version of yourself.

Plan now for the future you

You already know you need to plan your own future security. Most people know that. Yet only 14% of U.S. workers believe they'll have enough to retire comfortably. (Read a report here.)

It can be hard to make sacrifices that won't pay off for decades. In fact, it's hard simply to imagine the person you'll be decades from now, let alone how what you do now affects that person.

Ask a longtime smoker about the person he was when he developed the habit. The average 17-year-old isn't thinking along the lines of, "If I keep smoking, then 65-year-old me will wind up getting chemo or lugging an oxygen tank."

The same phenomenon applies to money. An average 16-year-old with a summer job probably isn't thinking, "I'd better start a Roth IRA with some of this money." Heck, plenty of 46-year-olds still haven't figured that out.

"We'd rather have something now than wait for (the reward) to be bigger in the future. The future exists in a vague and murky way," notes Hershfield, an assistant professor of marketing.

Find ways to do this

Maybe you feel you can't afford to save, because of under- or unemployment and maybe student loans to boot.

Or maybe you're one of those 46-year-olds who haven't done much about the future except dread it. You can barely balance the books as it is, and your kids are scarily close to college age.

Both sets of concerns are valid. Both need to be overcome. 

People in their 20s earn less and owe more than they probably ever will again, but time is absolutely on their side thanks to our old friend, compound interest.


People in their 40s face a different (but still large) set of financial challenges, yet this decade is "make or break," according to MSN Money columnist Liz Weston.

(Need help getting started? Both demographics can find useful info from "The 50/30/20 budget fix" and "9 money rules to live by.")

At the risk of sounding just like your grandma, let me say this: The future is a lot closer than you think. It doesn’t matter if you're 16 or 46 -- the time to act is now.

When you actually do look like your grandma, then Old You will be mighty glad that Young You cared.

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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.