Are Native-English Speakers Worse Savers? How You Speak Can Affect Your Views on Money

Last Updated: 8/4/2022
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In his book, The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward, Daniel Pink surveyed 4,500 Americans in the most extensive regret analysis in history. His participants shared numerous remorses (over 15,000 regrets), but one repeated like a broken record, “I wish I had saved more money.”

Pink’s participants attributed their saving behaviors to career choices and economic factors. But they’re missing one key reason, says Keith Chen. In his famous Ted Talk, Chen shares that Americans save less not due to poor economic conditions, but because they speak English. The language we speak impacts our ability to save.

Breaking Down the English Language

Americans are not the only ones with poor savings habits. Chen (2013) analyzed the savings behavior of 76 countries and discovered a pattern. The countries saving the least amount of money — Greece, the United States, the United Kingdom and Israel — speak languages with strong future tenses (futured languages). Conversely, the countries saving the most — Luxembourg, Japan and Germany — speak languages with weak or no future tenses (futureless languages).

For example, Germans save significantly more money than Americans. The savings rate in Germany is 25% compared to 20% in the United States. According to Chen’s findings, Germans save more because they speak a futureless language. To illustrate his point, let’s break down the German language and compare it to English using weather as an example: An American would describe tomorrow’s rainy weather as “It will rain tomorrow.” Now, a German would describe the same event as “It rains tomorrow.”

Notice how the German phrase does not conjugate the verb “rains” to the future tense. The English phrase not only conjugates “rains” into “rain” but adds the word “will” to distinguish the future from the present. English is structured to focus on time: we have past (“It rained yesterday”), present (“It is raining”), and future tenses (“It will rain tomorrow”). As we view the world in these tenses, we subconsciously add timeframes to events.

  • This is an icon

    Futured Language: English

    Past: “It rained yesterday.”
    Present: “It is raining.”
    Future: “It will rain tomorrow.”

  • This is an icon

    Futureless Language: German

    Present: “It rains today.”
    Future: “It rains tomorrow.”


Futured speakers save less money because the future seems far away. English speakers only value short-term rewards and cannot see the benefits of saving. In their minds, why not push to later?

Futureless speakers, on the other hand, view the present and future as intertwined; they understand that saving now yields future benefits.

Like the Germans, the Japanese speak a futureless language and save more money (about 30%) than most people in other countries. The Japanese would describe the weather by simply adding a temporal phrase like “tomorrow” instead of conjugating “rain” into the future form. Because the Japanese view the future and present in the same way, they are more likely to save significantly more money than Americans or futured language speakers.

An illustration of a woman saying “money” in different languages.

Why Futureless Languages Save More

Futured language speakers spend larger percentages of their income because of the present bias, which is the human tendency to value smaller present rewards over larger future rewards. In other words, futured speakers want rewards now vs. later. This is why Americans find it difficult to save enough for retirement.

Chen found that the present bias transfers to other behaviors. In his research, Americans, Greeks, Englishmen and Israelis not only save less money but they view health similarly; they tend to exercise less and smoke more cigarettes. These activities offer a small reward now, but become hurtful in the future, such as being in debt or having serious health issues. For example, if Americans aren’t saving for retirement now, they may continue to work far beyond retirement age.

Chen also discovered that people speaking futureless languages (similar to German and Japanese) perceive no difference between the future and the present. Their frequent use of the present tense reduces the psychological distance from the future and current reality. People are more likely to save when the future appears closer to the present.

I’m an English Speaker. How Can I Save More?

Now that you’re aware that your language is likely influencing how you save money, you can fix it. Here are tips to correct your present bias and start saving more.

  • What You Can Do
    How to Do This
    Reframing Examples
    Additional Reading
  • Meditate

    Meditation is scientifically
    proven to reduce anxiety,
    which in turn helps to
    focus on the present moment.

    Here are a few apps you can use:

    “I am blocking out
    time during my day
    for a 10-minute
    mediation.”

    Bahrke & Morgan,
    1978;
    Krisanaprakornkit et
    al., 2006.

  • Speak in the
    present

    Meditation experts preach
    to live in the present moment,
    and wealth managers should
    do the same. Instead of saying
    out loud or in your head
    sentences like, “I will buy my
    flight tickets tomorrow,” say, “I
    am thinking about buying my
    flight tickets.” This mindset
    focuses your attention on the
    present moment, and when
    you’re finally ready to buy flight
    tickets, you will say, “I am buying
    flight tickets now.”

    "Today is beautiful."

    "I am thinking about
    my meeting
    tomorrow."

    "I am buying tickets."

    O'Donoghue, T., &
    Rabin, 2015;
    ​​Mavisakalyan et al.,
    2018; Danziger & Ward,
    2010, Sutter et al.,
    2-018; Ayres et al.,
    2020.

  • Change your
    behaviors

    You can fight it now that you’re
    aware of a strong present bias.

    • Rather than giving into small
      present rewards, rethink
      your behaviors to achieve
      long-term benefits.
    • Sign-up for applications that
      automatically convert part of
      your paychecks into savings.
    • Also, enroll in your company’s
      401(k) plan if possible.
    • Lastly, when stock price
      increases, we tend to want
      to buy it immediately. Instead,
      practice dollar-cost averaging
      and buy shares on a schedule
      (every week on Monday, for
      example).

    “If my company
    offers a 401(k) plan,
    I am enrolling into it.”
    (Automatic savings
    enrollment)

    “I buy shares every
    Monday.” (Dollar-cost
    averaging)

    Chen, 2013; Dancygier
    & Sweetser, 2009;
    O’Donoghue & Rabin,
    1999; Roberts et al.,
    2015; Iatridou, 2000.

  • Use cash

    Credits cards reduce the "pain
    of paying" because the physical
    act of giving money does not
    exist. This is why people tend
    to spend more on their credit
    cards because it does not feel
    like they're spending money
    until they receive the bill at the
    end of the month. Paying in
    cash instead of credit card
    increases the "pain of paying,"
    which compels consumers to
    value the present over the
    future and ultimately helps
    them save money.

    “I am paying with
    cash today.”

    “I am limiting my
    credit card usage.”

    Thomas et al., 2011;
    Runnemark et al., 2015;
    Lee et al., 2019.


Cognitive biases often take control of our behaviors. A positive mindset may not be enough to improve our poor habits and dig us out of hopelessness. Luckily, research like Keith Chen’s exposes why we behave irrationally in the first place, so we can work on improving habits like overspending, smoking and avoiding exercise. Further studies show that speaking in the present tense, meditating and enrolling in automatic savings programs can help individuals save more money and improve their finances over time.



About the Author


expert-profile

Nick Mishkin specializes in applying behavioral science to business communication. Since earning his bachelor’s degree in economics and music from the University of Pennsylvania, Nick has sold products for several companies across multiple industries: music, advertising, SaaS technology and information technology. He is earning his master's degree in behavioral economics at Reichman University in Israel and curates the popular Spotify podcast playlist, “Behavioral Economics.”


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