The secret to saving money is to trick yourself into being poor

In the three years since graduation, my net worth has increased $100K(!). I may have started with a negative number in 2014, but that’s no longer the case (because I’m debt free!). This only happened because I put as much money into savings and debt repayment as possible. Saving money is so much easier when you trick yourself into doing it. I have a long way to go before I trim down on all my excess spending, but I’ve gotten where I have today by always making sure that I feel poor.

Trick 1: Bank Automation – Take money out of your checking account before you mentally process that it’s there

I get paid on the 15th and last day of every month. I have multiple Capital One 360 and Wealthfront transfers that kick in the same day that my paycheck enters my checking account. At least 50% of my income gets siphoned away into other accounts immediately. As a result, I’ve trained myself to only expect a $1,000 balance increase instead of $2,000. Although this is a lot to take out at once, I have the flexibility to draw from my savings at any time. However, by having a 2-3 day delay in the transfer of funds, I know to only take money out when I truly need it.

Trick 2: Bank Automation – Use smaller, more frequent deposits to mimic expenses

In addition to the larger transfers that are set on paydays, I have an additional automated transfer that’s set to pull $50 out of my checking account every Friday. It’s so easy for me to spend $50, that when I look at this number, I just think of it as another purchase. I could just as easily set up a $100 semi-monthly or $200 monthly transfer, but I like that this is the sneaky savings strategy that makes one of my savings accounts grow over time.

Trick 3: Paycheck Automation – Reduce the size of your paycheck

Max out your 401K, contribute to an IRA, increase your tax withholding—if you reduce your take-home pay, you’ll have no choice but to get accustomed to living on less. With withholding, I personally prefer to minimize the size of my tax refund. That said, an increased withholding amount is a popular way for some people to save money. If you had the choice between an extra $50 a paycheck or $1,200 more in your tax refund, which would you prefer?

Tips for handling your transition into this new lifestyle:

Account for repeat expenses at the beginning of the month

After paying for rent and dance in the first few days of the month, I’ve gone through 58% of my allotted budget. Having less than half of my budget to cover three weeks of expenses is stressful! I check Mint multiple times a week (more like every day), so I pay close attention to how much I have left to spend. Because I tend to put more into my savings than is realistically feasible, I break my budget… on a regular basis. Yes, this defeats the purpose of a typical budget, but I end up feeling like a big spender, which then motivates me to be even more frugal. (Okay, I’m still working on that last bit.) Why does this work? If I need more money than what is in my checking account, I want to feel the pain of pulling money out of my savings.

Always know the balance of your spending accounts

This is really referring to your checking and credit card accounts. When you sum up the balances, do you have a positive or negative number? If it’s positive, do you have a $100 buffer? $500? Like the envelope system, which gives you a specific cash amount you can spend a month, treat this number as if it’s physical cash sitting in your wallet. If you hit $0, cut your spending off. It takes some time to get used to, but your cash flow is one of the most important numbers to be aware of when you’re making significant changes to your saving habits.


There’s definitely a balance to all of this. Because I spend more than I budget, I tend to stress out more than I probably should over my net cash flow. That said, these tips go a long way with saving towards financial goals. The harder it is to accomplish a goal, the lower your likelihood of success. By using some of these tricks, you reduce the amount of active cash management needed to put away money. What other tricks do you use to save money?


  1. I think “tricking yourself into being poor” is honestly such good advice! It’s along the same lines of living well below your means, but instead your making your means lower to begin with!

    I’m a huge fan of automated transfers. I do this for my IRA, vacation savings, and personal escrow (savings account we created for taxes and other annual and semi-annual bills). 4
    My 401k comes directly out of my paycheck, too, of course.

    Some advice I give to my friends is to set aside smaller amounts of money each week rather than a larger sum once a month or so. Smaller more frequent transfers mentally seem to be easier to handle sometimes!

    1. Author

      Automated transfers for the win! I don’t think I would’ve been nearly as successful with my savings goals without them.
      Some people prefer to take their money out in chunks, others prefer smaller but more frequent withdrawals. Either works, so long as it’s helping you towards your goals. I do agree with you though that smaller transfers seem to be mentally easier; it’s a perfect way for someone who isn’t used to saving to start.

    2. Love your comment, Courtney! I allocate most of my money to bills, savings, and investments at the start of the month to make sure I don’t spend more than I want! It’s an easy trick to keep your budget on track.

  2. I love this concept! Another tool I use is my employers direct deposit set up. I can add up to 4 different accounts for my paycheck. So, I have part of my paycheck go into my checking and the rest is split between 3 savings accounts for different goals (Emergency Fund, A Future Car Fund and a New Roof Fund). That is all after my 401K, HSA and DCFSA contributions 🙂

    1. Author

      That’s such a useful tool! I don’t think I have anything like that available with my company, although it’s not on my list to check with HR and make sure. Having funds taken out of your paycheck before it even hits your checking is definitely the best possible way to save, in my opinion.

      1. I have it pretty easy, there is an online portal so I can switch it around any time I want. Mr. AR’s employer doesn’t have the same set up, so we just have the paycheck coming into checking there. I hope there is a way to divert for you… it is really helpful for me to never see the $$ hit the checking account!

  3. This is actually such a great trick! And something I hadn’t even thought of! That’s SO amazing that you’ve been able to save that much since graduation as well. I’ve been meaning to set up automation on my account for ages, but i’m going to admit I’ve been super lazy, so I’ve been manually transferring each week (if I remember). So, reading this definitely gives me a kick in the butt to get that automation going on my account. Thanks so much for sharing Jane!!
    Amanda x

  4. I love the idea of tricking yourself into thinking you’re poor. I’m still living off the same salary from years ago despite annual raises and promotions. It’s really helped our savings grow.

    1. Author

      Living off the same salary post raises and promotions is super tough, kudos to you! I’m sure it’s had a huge difference in your savings.

  5. Definitely better advice than anything else I have seen so far! I’m working on spending less, but needed the boost in ideas to make that more of a reality.

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