Why is visualisation so powerful?

26 July 2022

At a glance

Many young people want to save for the long term but are thwarted by their own psychology. While they may put off any thought of retirement planning due to more immediate financial concerns, from paying off student loans to saving for a house deposit, they may also find it difficult to think about the distant future.

The challenge is that people struggle to imagine themselves as old and lack empathy for their future selves. This makes it hard to commit to long-term savings and pensions – even for those fully aware of the benefits.

The result is that many leave themselves short of money in later years, significantly affecting their financial wellbeing.

You can hack this problem using a technique known as self-visualisation.

What is self-visualisation?

Future self-visualisation is a powerful psychological tool that can change this mindset and boost your financial confidence.

Elite sportspeople use it for motivation – for example, picturing themselves winning at the Olympics, hearing the crowd’s roar and feeling the triumph of achievement as they receive a gold medal.

As a long-term saver, you can use the same technique to picture yourself at an older age and imagine what it feels like to be free from any unwanted financial burdens.

Why is visualisation so powerful?

Research by Hal Hershfield, a professor at UCLA, shows people tend to treat their future selves as a different person. His studies have sought to explore the idea that if people get to know and show more regard for their future selves, they might change their savings preferences to suit.

He ran an experiment1 in which young people had their photos digitally aged. Those who looked at these said they wanted to save an average of 6.2% of their salary for retirement, versus 4.4% for people looking at a photo of their current self. In other words, those who had a clear visualisation of themselves in the future were more likely to favour long-term rewards.

Once you have an understanding of your future self, visualisation creates a positive mindset. It helps to think about all the things you might do once you have achieved financial security in the future.

Knowing who you want to be motivates you to plan more effectively, set achievable goals and become that person.

How to use visualisation to get the life you want

The scenarios you visualise are most effective when they contain as much vibrancy, detail and emotion as possible.

Think about where you would like to live if money was no object – maybe you would have multiple homes. Visualise what hobbies or interests you would pursue if you had more free time.

Allow yourself to sense what life could be like once you achieve your financial goals – conjure the images, colours, details and emotions in your mind.

Tony Clark, Senior Propositions Manager at St. James’s Place, says it doesn’t matter if you’re not sure exactly who you want to be yet. Just visualising potential scenarios will help you create tangible targets.

“Nobody knows exactly what the future holds, but you can think about what your life might look like and what you aspire to,” he says. “For example, do you want to travel the world, or own a nice house?

“Then think, ‘If I want these versions of my future, how will I afford them?’ Consider how you can give yourself options, so you’re not stuck when the time comes.”

How do you set long-term goals?

Self-visualisation should motivate you to start making smart, practical steps towards achieving your aspirations.

You can do many small things now that will make a big difference long-term – putting money aside for emergencies and creating a savings bucket for medium-term goals will help you get into the savings habit.

Talking to a financial adviser can help you decide where to start. We can explain how savings and investment vehicles work – such as Stocks & Shares ISAs and pensions – and the tax advantages available.

Additionally, we can talk to you about pensions. With an employee scheme, the more you put in, the more many employers will match. And if you’re self-employed or a business owner, it’s vital to start a private pension. The importance of saving into a pension cannot be overestimated: young people opting out of a workplace scheme or skipping contributions have a lot more to lose than older people who do so, due to how your money will grow over time.

A critical concept in planning for the long term is compound returns, which makes your investment growth accelerate each year. Over 20 or 30 years, this growth accelerates ever faster towards the end – and it’s exciting to picture. But you need to start early to take maximum advantage.

The value of advice

Research from Numis Securities2 found that the value of advice can amount to an additional 2% of returns per year, based on comparing annual returns for St. James’s Place clients with those who managed their own Investments. So speaking to a financial adviser as early as possible could make a huge difference over the longer term.

We add value by helping you avoid scams; use the right tax wrappers; get the confidence to start saving and investing; and tailor your portfolios to match your goals. We can also help you make rational decisions and avoid mistakes in uncertain times.

We aim to get to know you, help you add detail to your self-visualisation and take practical actions towards your goals. These early steps can make a huge difference to your peace of mind, financial confidence and wellbeing – now and longer term.

Past performance is not indicative of future performance.

According to independent analysis by Numis Securities, the value of advice amounts to an additional 2% per year. This is based on comparing annual returns for St. James’s Place clients against those who managed their own investments.

The research, which covered all clients’ SJP pension investments, found that between June 2010 and June 2020 the average growth achieved was 7.7%pa. This means £100,000 invested at the start of the period would be worth £210,000 by the end. By comparison, the same exercise for pension clients of a large firm where investors usually make their own investment decisions achieved an average of 5.5% pa over the same period. So on average £100,000 invested by a non-advised client grew to £171,000 over the ten years.

This analysis didn’t include any tax benefits from advice and so Numis’s researchers concluded that the main difference between the two was the “greater long-term discipline and lower emotion an adviser provides.

The value of an investment with St. James’s Place will be directly linked to the performance of the funds you select and the value can therefore go down as well as up. You may get back less than you invested.

The levels and bases of taxation, and reliefs from taxation, can change at any time. The value of any tax relief is generally dependent on individual circumstances.


1 Increasing Saving Behavior Through Age-Progressed Renderings of the Future Self, Hal Hershfield et al, Journal of Marketing Research, November 2011

2 Numis Securities research, September 2020

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