Three fallacies that will cost you money

Artwork by The Child

I am taking an MBA class, and I was reminded of a lesson that we should all keep in mind when making money decisions. Here are three ways in which our mind can play tricks on us that lead us astray.

Proportionate thinking:

Suppose you are shopping for a big-screen TV. You are a smart shopper, so you compare prices and discover that your local Best Buy has the exact TV you want for $3,999.99. Walmart, which is 15 min away, also has the same TV but for $3,989.99. Do you drive for 30 minutes round trip to save $10 on a $4,000 TV?

Now suppose that a Dairy Queen, which is also 15 min away, has free ice cream cones for the whole family, which you know normally costs $10 at your local Dairy Queen. Would you drive 30 min to get free ice cream for everyone?

Most people will not drive extra to save $10 when they are already planning to spend $4,000 because $3,999.99 is “almost the same” as $3,989.99. But these same people will drive the same distance to get free ice cream that is worth $10.

The fundamental question is, is it worth driving 30 min for $10 so the answer should always be the same, it is either worth it, or it is not. But the human mind gets focused on the proportion, not the absolute amount. So, when making a decision about money, try to step out of the specific situation and think about the principle.

This can get complicated very quickly, and there can be good reasons why the answer might be different in the two situations. Making a big purchase can be anxiety-provoking, and many people just want to get it done. On the other hand, going for free ice cream can be a fun family outing, and the drive can be part of the experience. Making a different choice in the two situations is not necessarily illogical, but it is still important to watch out for proportional thinking.

Ignoring implicit costs:

We recently considered buying a treadmill to use during the cold winter months. A basic treadmill is about $300. We could afford it. But then I started considering all the other “costs”:

-It will take up space the whole year while we will probably only use it during the two very cold months.

-We will have to maintain it and potentially service it if it stops working (which is likely if we are buying the cheapest model).

-If we move (which is likely), we will have to move it or get rid of it.

-We hope to move to a smaller house at some point, which will probably not have space for a treadmill.

-Eventually, this machine will end up in a landfill someplace where it will be for millions of years.

After considering all these other “costs,” we have decided to at least try some alternatives. Doing online exercise videos comes at no cost, no environmental impact, and can be done on demand. Of course, staying healthy is priceless, so if other options don’t work, we will reconsider the treadmill, but we will try the other options first.

Coloring money

We often make different decisions about money based on how we obtained it. Let’s take the treadmill example from above. Suppose I win $300 and decide that I can have the treadmill for “free,” so I buy it. This is an example of coloring money. I think of the $300 I won as somehow different than the rest of my money. But it is not. I could have afforded the treadmill before, but I decided it is not worth it. Just because I now have a different $300, this doesn’t change any of the reasons I decided it wasn’t worth it. You should use the same logic in spending these $300 as you use for any other $300. All money that you have is the same, no matter how you obtained it.

The decision parameters change if I actually win a treadmill. In this case, I can’t choose to spend the money on something else. My choice is to take the free treadmill if I think that the rest of the implicit costs after removing the treadmill’s actual cost are worth it or decline it and get nothing. If I were offered a free treadmill, I would probably take it.

There is sometimes space to negotiate that should be explored. Imagine your child has just finished their undergrad degree, they are finding it difficult to get a job, and you want to help. You are sitting for dinner, and your kid starts talking about some certificate program that they read about that seems like the kind of thing employers are looking for. The program’s cost is $5,000, and you jump at the opportunity to help your kid and say that you will pay for the program.

This situation is kind of like winning a free treadmill. The parameters for the kid is that she can get this program for free or get nothing, so she will probably choose to do the program. But is this the optimal way for you to help your kid? Maybe there is a different and better certificate that she wants to do. Or maybe she would rather use the $5,000 to buy a car, which will allow her to look for jobs in a larger geographic area. Or maybe she needs the money to start a small business. Your money may be much more beneficial to your kid if, instead of promising to pay for the certificate, you decide how much money you want to give to your kid and then have a conversation with her to figure out the best way to help. Depending on the kid, you could be completely hands-off and give her the money and trust she will make a good decision. On the other extreme, you might want to discuss with the kid, and once a decision is made, use the money to pay directly for the item you agreed on. Either way, that will ensure that your money is spent in the most impactful way possible.

Remaining completely logical when making money decisions is hard, but it pays to think hard about your behavior and realize that emotions sometimes cloud our judgment.