Paying Your Future Self

For decades, women have been the consistent targets of entire industries built to convince us we must stave off the future, prompting us to spend a considerable amount of time and money on lotions, potions and pills to ward off any signs of age. And too often, this avoidance of the future carries over into other aspects of our lives, including preparing our future selves for financial freedom.

For those of us with decades left in the workforce, this can be a tough ask. Retirement may not seem relevant or even appealing. For those with decades of work behind them, the opposite is likely true, which is evidence our brains are working against us when it comes to saving for our future selves.

Many of today’s working women plan to approach retirement as more of a scaling back than a full stoppage, often with an attitude of “I’m never going to stop working.” And while the notion of remaining engaged in purpose-giving work can be a great thing, what many of these women really mean (and some directly admit) is more bleak: “I will never be able to afford to retire, so I will work until I die.”

There are two problems with this. Firstly, it’s not realistic. For many of us, our health, having to care for a family member or other circumstances beyond our control will force us out of the workforce. And if the plan was to work forever, that is only going to compound a stressful situation. 

The other problem is that we create a self-fulfilling prophecy by thinking we will never be able to afford retirement. Because we tell ourselves we will not have enough money to retire and will need to work forever, that’s most likely what will happen. Blame it on priming. 

“When the brain is primed by a certain belief to look for something, it shuts down competing neural networks, so you actually have a hard time seeing evidence to the contrary of an already existing belief,” Dr. Jennice Vilhauer explains in Psychology Today

Essentially, if you say, “I’m not good with money,” “It’s too hard to understand investing” or “I’m not going to be able to afford retirement,” your brain is going to filter for evidence that proves you right, and you will act as though it is true.

The hope is that we can use this brain hack to our advantage and filter for a positive retirement reality instead. “I will stop working on my own terms one day.” “I will be financially stable in my 60s.” “I am smart and can understand my investments.”

Here’s how to prepare for this reality we’re bringing into existence.


1. Picture future you.

As Jason Zweig writes in the Wall Street Journal, “[Despite] decades of badgering, Americans are further behind than ever in their struggle to save. Behavioral science offers at least a partial [solution]: To make long-term financial goals more achievable, you must make yourself feel as if the future is now.”

Once you have future you in your mind’s eye, write down your vision for a stress-free retirement. Studies show that when people do this exercise, “they become roughly 25 percentage points more likely to increase their savings on the spot.”


2. Determine your savings rate. 

If you are in your 20s, time is on your side. Consistently setting aside a portion of your earnings — such as following the Save10 method of saving 10% of your income specifically for your future — will literally pay in the long run.

If you have a retirement plan at work, log into your account or contact payroll and tell them you want to save 10%. If you start saving this amount in your 20s, and maintain that savings rate for the rest of your life, studies show you will be able to retire comfortably in your 60s. 

If you missed out on saving in your 20s, you may have to play a bit of catch-up. If you have no retirement savings, you may consider a 15% savings rate in your 30s, a 20-25% savings rate in your 40s or a 30%+ savings rate in your 50s. This will also help you adjust to living off 70%, 80% or 90% of your income, a crucial practice as you likely will not have your full income replaced in retirement.

If you want to get a sense of how much you may need to save, The Vanguard Group retirement calculator is a great tool. You should also check to see if your employer does a 401(k) match. If you maximize your contribution, you can take full advantage of this free money. 

The numbers may seem scary now, but it’s another example of shifting perspective. Committing to a savings rate and making short-term sacrifices are necessary to reaping the rewards in your 60s. It’s a matter of making decisions that are best for your future self. 


3. Rethink your cash flow.

Unfortunately, there are other ways your mind can work against you — like getting distracted by Amazon Prime Day emails on your way to payroll to increase your savings rate. Your brain isn’t wired to care about you 10, 20 or 30 years from now. 

One way to navigate this is by using the “pay yourself first” cash flow system, which allows you to deal with your future self first, then lets your brain work through short-term concerns. For natural savers, it gives you permission to spend. For natural spenders, you can save off the top and then spend the rest of your money down to the last penny, if you so desire. Give each of your dollars a job and you can go about your life knowing future you will be taken care of and current you has funds for the things you care about now.

So let’s use our brains and our systems to our advantage. Meet your future self and daydream about her life. Then write it down, plan for it and make it real.



Asset allocation: The percentage of stocks and bonds you are invested in. When you are younger and can withstand more risk with your investments since you will not access that money for many, many years, you generally will have mostly stocks and some bonds. As you get closer to retirement, your allocation would become more conservative (meaning you may have more bonds) since you are not in a position to take on as much risk. 

Bond: An investment that is simply a loan to a governmental entity or company. As with loans that we make or take out, we understand the terms and interest rates. Bonds tend to be more stable investments.

Compound interest: Your best friend if you’re investing, and your worst enemy if you’re in credit card debt. When you invest, your money makes money on your behalf since you earn interest not only on your principal investment, but also on previously earned interest. With most credit cards, the opposite occurs. Interest is added to your daily balance and accrues over time.

Dollar cost averaging: Investing at regular intervals. Think about payroll deducting into your workplace retirement plan. You put the same amount or percentage of income into your investments with each paycheck regardless of how the stock and bond markets are performing. You may apply this practice with non-workplace investment accounts as well.

Index fund: Think of the S&P 500. This is an example of an index. It tracks the 500 largest companies in the U.S. stock market. If you want to become part owner of the 500 largest companies in the U.S. stock market, instead of buying 500 individual stocks, you would buy an S&P 500 index fund, and your investment would perform according to the collective performance of these companies, as measured by the S&P 500.

Passive investing: Investing with the goal of capturing the gains of the market, not trying to beat the market. Research shows 90% of investors who get paid to beat the market fail to do so over the long term. When you passively invest, you contribute money to investments and use index funds to capture long-term gains of the entire market or parts of the market.

Stock: A type of investment that represents ownership in a company. Because we don’t have a crystal ball and cannot predict how companies will perform, stocks are inherently risky. 

A Women’s Foundation of Arkansas Initiative

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