Are Native-English Speakers Worse Savers? How You Speak Can Affect Your Views on Money
In his book, The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward, Daniel Pink surveyed 4,500 Americans and found that many people regret not saving more money.
People typically attribute their low savings to their career choices, employer or the economy; however, the language they speak is likely the true driver. As Keith Chen illustrates in his famous Ted Talk, the language we speak impacts our ability to save.
He discovered that Americans save less money compared to people from other countries because they speak English. The English language relies heavily on the future tense and strengthens present bias. Because the language separates the future from the present, the future seems farther away and less relevant. So, the way Americans focus on the present says we prefer money now over the distant future.
Breaking Down the English Language
Diving deeper into Chen’s Ted Talk (2013), he analyzed 76 countries and discovered a pattern between a country’s language and its savings rate. The countries saving the least amount of money — Greece, United States, United Kingdom and Israel — speak languages with strong future tenses (futured languages). The countries with the largest saving rates, on the other hand, speak in languages with weak or no future tense (futureless languages).
For example, Germany’s saving rate (about 25%) is larger than the United States’ (about 20%), which is saying that Germans save significantly more money than Americans. 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. The way we speak in English focuses 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 a timeframe to events. “Will rain” says future and can be distant from the present (futured languages), while saying simply “rain” without a context of time shows the event is the same whether it is in the past, present or future (futureless languages).
Futured Language: English
Past: “It rained yesterday.”
Present: “It is raining.”
Future: “It will rain tomorrow.”
Futureless Language: German
Past: “It rains tomorrow.”
Present: “It rains tomorrow.”
Future: “It rains tomorrow.”
In regards to money and saving, if the future seems farther away from the present, those who speak futured languages will believe saving money can take too much time, compared to those speaking futureless languages who view the present and future as the same.
Another example, the Japanese, who live in a high savings country (about 30%), would also describe the weather similarly to the Germans. 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.
Why Futureless Languages Save More
People tend to have a strong present bias, which is the human tendency to value smaller present rewards over larger future rewards. In other words, we want rewards now vs. later. Our present bias makes it difficult to save money for Americans or futured language speakers because the benefit arrives in the future.
Chen found 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.
Conversely, Americans and heavy future-tense speakers value present rewards more. Chen also found that 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.
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 DoHow to Do ThisReframing ExamplesAdditional Reading
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
Bahrke & Morgan,
Speak in the
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
"I am buying tickets."
O'Donoghue, T., &
Mavisakalyan et al.,
2018; Danziger & Ward,
2010, Sutter et al.,
2-018; Ayres et al.,
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
- 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
where you’re buying shares on
a schedule (every week on
Monday, for example).
“If my company
offers a 401(k) plan,
I am enrolling into it.”
“I buy shares every
Chen, 2013; Dancygier
& Sweetser, 2009;
O’Donoghue & Rabin,
1999; Roberts et al.,
2015; Iatridou, 2000.
- Rather than giving into small
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
“I am limiting my
credit card usage.”
Thomas et al., 2011;
Runnemark et al., 2015;
Lee et al., 2019.
New scientific research comes with hope, development and new opportunities. By speaking in the present moment, meditating and enrolling in automatic savings programs, people will save more money, improve their finances over time and reduce their present bias.
About the Author
- Bahrke, M. S. and Morgan, W. P. "Anxiety reduction following exercise and meditation." Accessed February 24, 2022.
- Lee, C. Y., Morewedge, C. K., Hochman, G. and Ariely, D. "Small Probabilistic Discounts Stimulate Spending: Pain of Paying in Price Promotions." Accessed February 24, 2022.
- Chen, K. M. "The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior: Evidence from Savings Rates, Health Behaviors, and Retirement Assets." Accessed February 24, 2022.
- Iatridou, Sabine. "The Grammatical Ingredients of Counterfactuality." Accessed February 24, 2022.
- Krisanaprakornkit, T., Sriraj, W., Piyavhatkul, N. and Laopaiboon, M. "Meditation therapy for anxiety disorders." Accessed February 24, 2022.
- O’Donoghue, T. and Rabin, M. "Doing It Now or Later." Accessed March 24, 2022.
- O'Donoghue, T. and Rabin, M. "Present Bias: Lessons Learned and To Be Learned." Accessed February 24, 2022.
- Roberts, S. G., Winters, J. and Chen, K. "Future Tense and Economic Decisions: Controlling for Cultural Evolution." Accessed February 24, 2022.
- Thomas, M., Desai, K. K. and Seenivasan, S. "How Credit Card Payments Increase Unhealthy Food Purchases: Visceral Regulation of Vices." Accessed February 24, 2022.