Business & Tech

MICHELLE SINGLETARY | THE COLOR OF MONEY

Spending should be painful, not painless

When we use cash instead of credit cards, we immediately feel the pain, which helps us pause before purchasing.
Associated Press/file 2011
When we use cash instead of credit cards, we immediately feel the pain, which helps us pause before purchasing.

WASHINGTON — People often ask me what the best budgeting tool is to help them better track and control their spending.

I always pause, hoping the person is ready for an answer that’s different from what he or she asked.

A number of websites and mobile apps can turn you into a budgeting wizard, doing everything from downloading your banking information and allowing you to create impressive charts to alerting you when you’ve blown past your self-imposed spending limits.

Advertisement

But after years of working one-on-one with financially challenged people, here’s what I’ve found: The source of their money troubles isn’t their lack of a cool budgeting app. And most of the time it has nothing to do with their lack of funds.

Get Talking Points in your inbox:
An afternoon recap of the day’s most important business news, delivered weekdays.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

The truth is that many people fall into a crisis because they are bad at making good financial decisions. And all of the recent advances in technology may actually be making it easier to stumble, argue Dan Ariely and Jeff Kreisler in “Dollars and Sense: How We Misthink Money and How to Spend Smarter.”

The authors write: “From Bitcoin to Apple Pay, retinal scanners, Amazon preferences, and drone delivery, more and more modern systems are designed to make us spend more, more easily and more often. We are in an environment that is ever more hostile to making thoughtful, well-reasoned, rational decisions. And because of these modern tools, it’s only going to get more difficult for us to make choices that serve our long-term interests.”

Boom! Drop the mike.

The solution to your money troubles is to think more. You’ve got to delve deeper into the mind games being played against you and guard against the things you tell yourself that lead to money mistakes and your financial mismanagement.

Advertisement

If you want to get better at making good financial decisions, read “Dollars and Sense,” which is the Color of Money pick for this month.

Ariely is a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University. Kreisler is a comedian and writer whose funny asides provide much-needed levity on what can be a dense topic.

What the two authors do brilliantly is take behavioral economics and make it really accessible. I was captivated by the analysis of our flawed thinking. The authors spell out why so many of us make foolish money decisions. Then they show us how to rethink what we often get wrong.

And the struggle isn’t just about our own irrational behaviors, “it’s against systems designed to exacerbate those flaws and take advantage of our shortcomings.”

Take bargain shoppers for example. They are so proud of their sale-finding skills. I used to pride myself on my own deal-hunting ability until I realized I was the prey. Sales are bait, and you have to keep in mind that you never save when you spend.

Advertisement

Consider these two points from Ariely and Kreisler:

“When we see a sale, we shouldn’t consider what the price used to be or how much we’re spending. Rather we should consider what we’re actually going to spend. Buying a $60 shirt marked down from $100 isn’t ‘saving $40.’ It is spending $60.”

“Discounts are a potion for stupidity. They simply dumb down our decision-making process. When an item is ‘on sale,’ we act more quickly and with even less thought than if the product costs the same but is marked at a regular price.”

Did you know that studies using neuroimaging and MRIs show that paying stimulates the same brain regions that process physical pain?

This explains why we are so susceptible to painless paying.

“Modern life has given us endless financial instruments, such as credit cards, mortgages, car payments, and student loans, which further — and often purposefully — obscure our ability to understand the future effects of spending money,” the authors write.

Pain helps you pause. With delayed or monthly payments, we often don’t consider the future effects of our expenditures. But when we use cash, we immediately feel the pain.

If you don’t want to use cash, “punch yourself every time you spend money so you really feel it,” joke Ariely and Kreisler. But they add that this isn’t a “sustainable financial plan since eventually the medical bills will catch up with us.”

Seriously, if you don’t become more mindful about how and why you make your decisions, you’ll continue to make irrational choices. You’ll always be in debt. You’ll struggle to handle financial emergencies. You won’t have room in your budget to save for retirement.

Michelle Singletary
can be reached at michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter @SingletaryM.