The Full English Accompaniment – The neuroscience of a frugal mindset

What’s piqued my interest this week?

In a throwaway conversation this week MrsShrink said something which I’ve subsequently been ruminating on. In running our household I do most of the shopping, but MrsShrink does the toiletries. She remarked that she actively enjoyed going to browse in Savers, Home Bargains etc, as she enjoyed spending money she knows she has to. She’s learnt to be frugal, to penny-pinch, and spending is a treat. She gets a hit out of buying things most of us wouldn’t think twice about because to her it’s a forbidden joy.

Attitudes and behaviour towards money are learnt in childhood by observing your parents. On a structural level, the dopaminergic mesolimbic ‘reward’ pathway develops through your childhood and adolescence (1). This is the time when your brain is most sensitive to it’s reward system, and is setting down the pathways for a lifetimes use (2). The way I explain behavioural modelling to patients is to think of it as a parallel to learning your first language. As a toddler you observe your parents using sounds as language, try it out, see what works, gradually accumulating your understanding without consciously being aware of the process. Other behavioural processes also follow this unconscious accumulation process, including financial attitude. If you model your child’s behaviour at this time (consciously and unconsciously) you lay down the pathways for a lifetime of reward processing.

Hundreds of websites and blogs have signed onto this, offering to teach us the ways we can consciously train our children to be better financially. This doesn’t have to be as intense as paying your child through an investment account, or making them buy fractional shares in Netflix as some would recommend (3). The piggy bank, pocket money, weekend job development path will work just fine (4). I clearly remember learning the value of money calculating how many penny sweets I could buy with my 50p pocket money. The pre-frontal and frontal cortex projections of these pathways continue to develop into your teens and early 20s, forming your conscious awareness of pleasurable responses as you grow into adulthood.

The unconscious processes are far harder to model, alter or change. These are the deep cortex projections close to the archaic midbrain structures, projections which develop during early childhood through modelling. These are learnt through observation of those around you. This is why teaching your child to be a spendthrift can only go so far if your own approach is spending all you have to keep up with the Joneses. This is also why, in my opinion, people such as Little Miss Fire struggle with her Shop Floor Mentality (5). If you have grown up in an environment of thrift as a necessity of poverty the rewards from saving, investing and watching wealth grow are not hard-wired in your cortex. There is no unconscious drive for these goals. The Stanford Marshmallow experiment on delayed gratification is a case in point example, and potentially a way of teaching your child the benefits of patience (6).

Which is where I bring things full circle. Many rich people are innately frugal; look at Warren Buffett (7, 8). These winners derive their pleasure from the process not the outcome. MrsShrink is innately frugal as she was brought up in an environment where frugality was a necessity. She observed her mother being able to afford the things they wanted by saving wherever possible. I secretly suspect she is much more likely to become FI than I because of this innate drive, but will be hampered by her mistrust of investment vehicles. She has no desire and gains no pleasure from making non-frugal choices. Consciously training thought processes to be the same way is far harder.

Have a great week,

The Shrink

N.B. There won’t be a Full English Accompaniment next week as I’m on holiday AFK.

Side Orders

Other News:

Opinion/ blogs:

What I’m reading:

An exam textbook

Religio Medici and Urne-Buriall by Sir Thomas Browne – the theological and psychological reflections of a C17th doctor

Enchiridion by Epictetus – Bedside reading for a bad day


  1. Walker et al. Adolescence and Reward: Making Sense of Neural and Behavioral Changes Amid the Chaos. The Journal of Neuroscience (2017)
  2. Galvan, A. Adolescent Development of the Reward System. Frontiers In Human Neuroscience (2010)

One thought on “The Full English Accompaniment – The neuroscience of a frugal mindset

  1. Thanks for the shout out again – I’m chuffed to be included among some quality links!

    The only kind of shopping I enjoy is grocery shopping or browsing in bargains shops too, although I do have to mind what I spend as it’s easy to spend ‘too much’ in bargain shops!

    Liked by 1 person

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