A neuroscientist explains how to fix your bad habits and save more money

Budgeting apps and spreadsheets may help people get their finances in order, but neuroscientist Moran Cerf says there is a simpler way to save more money: Live life on one financial timeline.

Consider a typical American consumer. She gets paid twice a month, pays her bills once a month, goes grocery shopping maybe four times a month, eats three meals a day, and pays off her college loans over 20 years.

"All those metrics confuse our brain," Cerf, an assistant professor of marketing at Northwestern University, told Business Insider.

Cerf's solution is for people to experiment with different timescales — days, months, quarters, even years — to eventually find just one that works for most purchases.

RELATED: 31 easy money hacks to help you get richer every day of the month

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31 easy money hacks to help you get richer every single day this month
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31 easy money hacks to help you get richer every single day this month

1. List at least one item you aren't using on Craigslist or eBay.

Not only will this help you clear out clutter, but it will turn an unwanted item into cash. If you get inspired and want to sell more, check out this Lifehacker guide to turning unwanted junk into cash.

REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/File Photo 

2. Pack your lunch instead of buying it.

Time calculated how much someone in New York could save by bringing a brown bag lunch ($3) versus buying lunch ($15). At that rate of savings, if you packed lunch instead of buying it every day for a decade, you'd save $31,200. Calculate how much you would save using this Bankrate tool.

(KatarzynaBialasiewicz via Getty Images)

3. Change out at least one incandescent bulb to a CFL.

According to Consumer Reports: "By replacing a 60-watt incandescent bulb — the most common household bulb — with a spiral-type 13-watt CFL that produces an equivalent amount of light, you could save more than $57 over the life of the CFL."

(Jose Luis Pelaez)

4. Program your thermostat to turn off while you are at work or sleeping.

According to Energy.gov, "You can save as much as 10% a year on heating and cooling by simply turning your thermostat back 7°-10°F for 8 hours a day from its normal setting."

(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

5. Delete your stored credit cards from online accounts.

Have your credit card stored to make one-click purchases? If you instead have to manually enter your card each time, you make buying online more of a hassle, which will limit impulse purchases.

(Shutterstock / Vladimir Gerasimov)

6. Eat meatless.

Many people have adopted Meatless Mondays to help save money and the planet. Start this Monday and see if you can make it a habit.

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7. Buy a re-usable water bottle.

Consumer Reports calculates that bottled water costs $346 a year, while tap water costs just $0.48. If you are using bottled water, stop now and start refilling a water bottle instead.

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9. Download at least one money-saving app.

Check out Mic's guide to apps that will save you money. And U.S. News also has a list of nine apps to save you on everything from parking to cheap beer.

10. Cancel any memberships you aren't using.

Planet Money report found that half of all members of one popular gym never go — and the Washington Post reports the gym industry actually relies on members paying for, but never using, the service. Don't let money be auto-debited monthly for anything you don't actively use. Call now to cancel, and read Mic's guide to getting fit for free.

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11. Make sure you are using the right bank.

Check out what unnecessary fees you pay for ATM use and for maintaining a monthly account. If you're paying anything, it may be time to switch to a different bank: Check out Mic'guide to some of the best banks to use in 2016 to 2017 and see how your bank compares. If your bank falls short, make the switch.

12. Open an IRA, if you don't already have one. If you do, check on your investment mix.

An IRA is one of the best ways to save for retirement because you can potentially get tax breaks for investing in it. Check out this 5-minute guide to retirement savings to find out more and follow this simple step-by-step primer on opening one. If you already have an IRA, use an asset allocation calculator to see if you have the right mix of investments. 

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13. Create (or review) your budget. 

Read up on the basics of how to budget so you can determine the steps you need to take to get a handle on where your money is going. You can also use recommended budgeting apps to make the process easier. 

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14. Make sure you are using the right credit card.

Figuring out the best credit card for you is a matter of looking at your usage and needs. If you carry a balance, it's time to shop for a low APR card with a 0% balance transfer. But if you are a responsible card user, aim for a card with big cash-back perks or rewards.

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15.  Clean out the air filters in your car.

Pro Car Mechanics explains: "The benefits of a clean air filter are almost immediate. Airflow goes back to the proper level to mix with the gasoline. It has been estimated that replacing the dirty air filter will increase MPG on the car up to 10% and also generate a fuel savings of close $.15 per gallon at the fuel pump." Cars Direct explains how you can clean out your car's air filter. 

16. Review your debts and make sure your repayment approach is optimized.

If you owe money on credit cards or loans, review the interest rates, terms and repayment strategy. If you have high interest debt, refinancing could make sense.Think through your debt repayment strategy and evaluate whether you can or should make extra payments.

(BernardaSv via Getty Images)

17. Call your cell phone and cable companies.

Go over your monthly plans to find out if you are paying for services you don't need. Ask for any discounts that could potentially help you to spend less. Check out these tips for saving money on cable TV.

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18.  Sign up for a library card.

Many libraries now offer streaming video and electronic versions of books so you don't even have to visit the library to take advantage of their media. This website will help you find your closest local library.

(Taqwa Gad / EyeEm via Getty Images)

19.  Learn a skill that will help you save.

Learn to let out pants, tailor your own skirts, change the oil in your car or fix a stopped up sink. Wisebread has a list of 10 life skills to learn to save money.

(AndreyPopov via Getty Images)

20. Call your insurance agent.

If you have car insurance, homeowner's insurance or renter's insurance, you may be able to lower your deductible, bundle your policies or get rid of coverage you no longer need. Investopedia lists 6 ways to save on insurance.

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21. Print, cut, or buy coupons.

Using coupons can help you save on groceries, dining out and other items you buy. Browse sites like RetailMeNot for printable coupons or use TheCouponClippers to purchase cut coupons from the newspaper. Focus on items you are going to buy anyway. You might also visit websites like DealSeekingMom to find out how to get items like toothpaste and toilet paper for free — or close to free.

(kreinick via Getty Images)

22. Unsubscribe from daily deal sites or online websites.

If you are subscribed to a bunch of sites that alert you to sales and bargains, you are more likely to spend on items you don't need. Buy stuff when you decide you need it, not when an online newsletter tells you the item is on sale.

(PeopleImages via Getty Images)

23. Go for a walk instead of watching TV.

You won't waste the electricity on running the TV — and you won't see ads shilling for products. Plus, walking is a healthy and free way to get exercise.

24.  Plan a weekend of free events.

Make a commitment to not spend any money this weekend. Look for free community events to attend — or invite your friends over for a potluck or clothing swap party.

25. Plan your meals for the week.

Meal planning allows you to avoid wasting food since you can make a grocery list and buy only what you need. Lifehacker has a simple guide to meal planning and you can check out Mic's tips for healthy eating on a budget.

26. Cook and store food strategically.

Following your meal plan, make up a few meals you'll eat over the course of the week. You can even make some extra to freeze for when you're in a rush and don't have time to cook or pack a lunch a few days later: Just portion out food in little freezer bags so it'll be easy to thaw individual meals.

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27. Have a no-spend day today.

Make a commitment not to spend even $1 on anything for one whole day. Prep your coffee at home, bring your lunch, bike to work, and eat one of your pre-planned, home-cooked meals for dinner.

28. Automate all of your bill paying ... and saving.

If you are still manually paying your bills each month, set up automation for any accounts you can. This helps you avoid late fees if you get busy or forget. If you have a savings account, set up an automated transfer of at least a few dollars per month so you can make sure you are saving something.

(Rawpixel via Getty Images)

29. Find a cheaper way to commute today.

If you normally Uber, try taking public transportation. If you normally take public transportation, walk or bike to work. If you drive, see if you can arrange a carpool or switch to the bus. Your commute can cost you thousands over your working life.

30. Call HR and ask about workplace benefits.

You should definitely be investing in a 401(k) if your employer offers one. However, you may be eligible for other benefits like corporate discounts on cell phone service or hotel rooms. Find out what benefits are available that you can use to save — you might be surprised (see: "cash in lieu").

(DNY59 via Getty Images)

31. Carry around healthy snacks bought in bulk.

It's not just meals that are a money suck, and hitting the vending machine can add up. Buy some dried fruit, granola bars or trail mix in bulk — and then bag it up into snack-sized portions to help your wallet and your waistline.

(bajker via Getty Images)

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One person, for example, might decide he needs to give himself a daily allowance and that's it. Once he sets aside the money he'll need for fixed costs, such as bills and loans, he allocates the remainder as a per-diem. Every purchase gets filtered through the lens of "Can I buy this today?" If the answer is consistently yes, he'll never go over-budget for the month.

Someone else, meanwhile, might find she needs to think on the order of every month, or quarter. Maybe she has a tough time sticking to cooking her own meals and eats out a lot. As long as she comes under-budget for her food costs over that month (or three months), then the system works. The cost of each individual meal is irrelevant.

Cerf acknowledged the method takes some getting used to, but he encouraged people to think like a scientist and experiment with different timescales.

The method comes from neuroscience research showing decision-making can be exhausting. Each day, adults make tens of thousands of decisions, about 200 of which involve food alone. Cerf has claimed the best way to maximize happiness is to make smarter high-level decisions that eliminate the need for smaller decisions. (It's for precisely this reason that Cerf always orders the second dish on a restaurant's list of specials.)

One strategy is to be more intentional with who you spend time with. Cerf's research has shown two people's brain activity will become more alike when they're in each other's presence. The finding suggests that people can more easily reach their goals by spending more time with people already in that circle.

Since money is so often a point of frustration for people, Cerf realized people needed a way to make fewer money-related decisions, too.

Setting a standard timeline for spending money falls under the umbrella of eliminating smaller decisions. Instead of debating whether you can afford something on a daily (or maybe even hourly) basis, Cerf's suggestion is to figure that all out ahead of time and enjoy living with less financial worry.

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