Money might be all about the numbers, but how we spend it often defies rational thinking. Comedian/economist Jeff Kreisler talks about the emotions behind our money decisions, outlined in his new book, “Dollars and Sense: How We Misthink Money and How to Spend Smarter,” which he co-wrote with economist Dan Ariely.
Why are we price-sensitive about certain things and think nothing about others? Do we do a cost-benefit analysis when conducting our finances or consider opportunity cost? We’ll break down the emotions behind our spending in this episode.
So, let’s get Charged Up! about making sense out of how we spend our dollars!
Jenny Hoff: Thank you so much for joining me today!
Jeff Kreisler: Thanks for having me.
Hoff: So, let’s first talk about your background. What got you interested in writing about money and the psychology behind it? Your first book about money was “Get Rich Cheating.” What drew you to this topic?
Kreisler: Well, it was a long winding road, and I started by going to Princeton and studying economics, and then abandoning that and pursuing law, going to a law school, and then abandoning that, and pursuing comedy. I say it sort of jokingly, but all of that forms obviously what I was interested in, and someone came along with an opportunity to write for Jim Cramer’s website, TheStreet.com, and to write a financial humor column. So, I combined many of my interests, and then I started doing that, and then I was given an opportunity to present some book ideas, and sort of an overall theme in everything that I had studied and talked about were the tricks and traps that either we fell into ourselves or we sort of opened the door for others to take advantage of us, whether that was money, mistakes or being cheated.
My first book was “Get Rich Cheating,” so I got this idea about how to get rich cheating and wrote this book which did well enough and turned into a show, and then I got a copy of that book to Dan Ariely who was my co-author on this current book and who I really didn’t know who he was. My sister saw him talk and said to send him a book. I did, he invited me to speak at his class at Duke. He teaches graduate students and undergrads business, and I would go and I had this sort of fake wealth-building advice that I would give them, and he didn’t introduce me as a comedian but as someone with high-income earners as clients and unique ideas, and it would fascinate me what I would say to them about cost-benefit analysis, no one was getting caught cheating, you can make millions, and some of them would say, “Oh, that’s a good idea.”
Then we delved into morality and ethics. It has opened my eyes in a way that money messes with our heads, and the cheating book was sort of how it can make us do unethical things, but then the more I studied Dan’s work and the work of other people, and just sort of my own experience, the more I found that money, really, it makes us act irrationally. It makes us act emotionally, and it’s very difficult for us to think about, and so the opportunity to write this book was in and of itself unique, and I was really excited to sort of explore what those hidden forces are and why we act so crazily with money.
Hoff: Absolutely, and I really enjoyed reading your book because I think everybody can find themselves in there at some point probably at many points in the book, the kind of irrational rationalizations when it comes to spending and how we categorize our purchases, our price sensitivity to certain things and not to others. So, we’re going to delve into some of those key concepts of the book, but first, can you kind of give us an overview of the psychology of spending and why it’s important for us to understand it in order to kind of control it?
Kreisler: Sure. The way that we should, in an ideal world, think about our spending is we should think about what are called “opportunity costs” which is essentially, what else we could spend that money on at any time in the future, right? Like if you are going to spend $5 for cappuccino, what else could you spend that $5 on, like now and in the future? That’s how we should think in an ideal sort of economic pure fashion think about money, but that is hard to do and we don’t really suggest people do that. We don’t want people freaking out every time they buy a coffee or a newspaper, wondering what they should do with it, but periodically, of course, that is what you should think about. If you are buying a car, again, in an experiment where he goes to a Toyota dealership and people are about to spend $25,000 on a car, and he asked, “What else could you spend this money on?” and they can’t think about it, and then most just them and they say, “Well, if I buy a Toyota, then I can’t buy a Honda,” which is the same category to spend that money which really, you should think about the $25,000 as three vacations a year for five years, or a lower monthly mortgage. That’s how we should think about money. Again, that’s unrealistic that we will do that and that’s really difficult to think about because money can be used for so many things – that’s what’s great about money, so targeting the whole world, so what we end up doing is we end up taking shortcuts, and we end up following value cues that are a way for us to assess the value of something instead of thinking about opportunity costs, and what our book does is it sort of weighs out many of the common ways that we do that, that we assess something’s value of whether or not we spend on it that doesn’t really have to do with opportunity costs. It’s not really a proxy for opportunity costs. It’s something different, and so that’s sort of the foundation of what the book presents and what we hope people will see they are doing so then they can create systems or create better ways to spend their money more consciously.
Hoff: Absolutely, and when you talk about opportunity costs, you’re right, when we think about in business sometimes, “Why am I wasting my time doing this when I can be doing much more valuable?” or “I will hire somebody to clean my house so I can use that time to work,” but it is very hard sometimes when you would think, “What else could I potentially be doing in the future with this money?” You talk about relativity and how we assess value, and I mean, there’s so many instances in your book where you talk about artwork or photographs that somebody prints off Instagram and is able to sell for thousands of dollars, and how really, relativity is what shapes what value we assign to something, so how do we think about what value something has and how should we be thinking about that?
Kreisler: Sure, well, if you take a step back, how can we ever know what something is worth, like a piece of art or this Instagram thing you mentioned, or these things, or even going back to like what’s an apple worth? How did we ever decide what the monetary value of an apple was? And it’s hard in a vacuum to consider those things, so we look for things to compare it to, right? Like if we know that we have always spent a dollar on an apple, we’d compare the current price to what we would overspend, or if we know that a big house costs $2 million, well, the house that’s about half as big maybe should cost $1 million. On its own, if you just were given a house, how do you assess that? So, we end up looking for things to compare it to, and I often use the example of people are more likely to buy a sweater that costs $60, marked down from $100 than just one that costs $60 because they’re like, “Oh, I’m saving $40 and it used to be $100. It’s got to be a great deal.” We often talk about the iPhone. Right when the iPhone came out, it was listed at $600, and then a couple of weeks later, they said, “No, now it’s $400,” and if you think about the iPhone and it was a whole new product. There was no way to assess the worth, but suddenly, when there were two versions of the iPhone, the $600 and the $400, right, the one that was in the past, suddenly, that $400 one seemed like the great value even though all we’re comparing it to is that $600 one. One example we used in the book that’s sort of out of the monetary range I find people connect to is there was an experiment where they had two bowls of soup and people eating the soup, and one was eating the soup regularly and the other one had an imperceptible little hose that was adding more soup as the person ate, so the bowl went down more slowly, and the people that had that bowl that went down more slowly ended up eating almost twice as much soup because the only way they could gauge how much of food they should eat, the value of the food, if you will, was by comparing it to the bowl, the relative amount that was in the bowl, and just having that sort of visual cue changed what they thought about how hungry they were. We fall into the same traps when it comes to how much we should spend on something because we compare it to the other things that are around it.
Hoff: Yes, and I think that was really interesting. I also want to talk about the sales craze. Some stores are notorious for doing it. They’re always having that one-day sale or that extra 25 percent off, and I used to work in retail when I was in high school and I remember, we’d have sweaters that were one price and then suddenly, it was two-for-one, but the sweater went up in price, right? So, you really weren’t saving anything. It was a psychological ploy to the people that they were getting some great deal, so we know these things. When I read your book, of course, it all makes sense. Why do we continue to do them even if we know that we are being tricked in some way?
Kreisler: There is a lot of reasons why we do it. One, sometimes, it’s fun, right? If you are shopping and you have to go shopping, you can make a game of it. JC Penney, we talked about in our book, had a whole group of loyal customers that on some conscious level or subconscious level, they knew that the prices were higher so that they could then be reduced but they also enjoyed the “gamification” of going to find the great deals. So, it’s that element that we want to have fun, and there’s also just when we stop and think about it, we are aware that we are being manipulated or led astray, but in the moment, we are not stopping to think about it. We don’t do this assessment, and again, that’s what we want to encourage people, the point of the whole book is to periodically, you stop and think about your decisions. You may decide it’s worth a few extra bucks to have the fun of shopping, so be it, as long as that’s your choice, not the choice of the store, but what often happens is that in the moment in the store and we’re seeing the sales, we don’t really think about how this actually isn’t a good deal. It’s really marked up so they can mark it down, because we’re in that moment of spending and it’s just so hard to assess things to go for the shortcut.
Hoff: Yes, we think we are being savvy.
Kreisler: Exactly, and then later, sure, if we are sitting down with Jenny Hoff or we’re sitting down with our friend and we talk about it, we’ll be like, “Yes, they probably marked it up and marked down,” but that’s not where we are in that moment of decision, and at the decision point, our emotions and our irrationality come in.
Hoff: And I think this is important to talk about because I think as people are listening to this, they can start thinking about everyday purchases that we make, and a lot of them, while we think we are kind of just rationally going about our day and making decisions, they are very emotion-based, and I always find it very interesting in price sensitivity to certain things. So for instance, when we are booking a flight, I’ll have noticed before, you will take an indirect flight with a long layover because it’s maybe $50 less or something. That’s what I used to do and I know a lot of people do that, really, that’s price sensitivity, but then you will go out to dinner and splurge and have a $50 dinner, no problem, where you’re going to suffer a lot more on that flight. So why are we price sensitive to certain things? And I think it’s that relativity that you were talking about, right, where it kind of feels like bundling versus individual purchases. Why are we so price sensitive in an irrational way?
Kreisler: I think it’s, again, because it’s hard to assess the value of – what’s the value of getting in a piece of metal and flying across country? If you step back, so we assess our value based upon these little increments of change, and we want to get through the process of buying it because it’s uncomfortable to assess so we don’t stop to think, “Well, I’m adding two hours in Chicago O’Hare in the middle of January,” right? We don’t think about what that is really worth or the potential that I might get stuck in a snowstorm and have to eat bad airport food and all of this, whereas at the same time, you go to dinner and there’s emotions that get caught up. You like having a good time and you just want to enjoy that moment, so you don’t think about it, and so the emotions, both of sort of the discomfort of trying to assess price on one hand and then going to dinner and having a good time gets caught up in them, and it can be sometimes a matter of the things that we do habitually. There’s spending, there is a big spend, like buying a house or buying a car. There’s little spend like buying a pack of gum at a store. I wouldn’t encourage people to question whether or not they should spend $1.25 or $1.15 on a gum all the time. Don’t kill yourself over that, then there are the habitual things, the things that we sort of maybe think about once but then over the course of the year or several years, we don’t assess, and one of them might be going to dinner and spending $100 on dinner. Once we’ve done it once and justified it once, then we use that initial justification to justify future justification. That is our own sort of self-hurting shortcut that we take and why going out to dinner with friends, if you do it frequently and spend this amount of money, you never really think about it, and that is a challenge, you will always use the coffee example. I’m sure plenty of people have come to you, like don’t spend $5 on a latte. It’s fine to spend $5 on a latte and don’t let every time you go to the coffee shop stress about it, but once in a while, once a year, once every six months, think about whether or not that cumulative amount you’re spending on coffee is really worth it, and then assess it. So what happens is we go one time to decide, OK, I’ll spend $5 on a latte, and the next time we show up, we’re like, “Well, I spent $5 last night so I must have made the right choice,” and then that snowballs.
Hoff: Yes, absolutely, I even love the example in your book about the guy who goes to the casino in Las Vegas and he just blows tons of money on something that is set up to make him lose, which is how they built Vegas in the first place, but he will walk several blocks out of the way to get a cheaper coffee or avoid going to the coffee place next door in order to make it in his room to not spend $4 on a coffee where it’s like, OK, well, you should have maybe used that self-control in a different area.
Kreisler: Right. When we are making big money decisions, there’s small money decisions, oftentimes, we get caught up in percents, like if you’re doing a home renovation for $60,000 and the contractor comes up and says, “You know, for another $2,000, you can get some Italian Stone,” right? So you, you’re like, “OK, sure, $2,000, that’s fine. It’s a fairly small percent of what I am spending.” Whereas then you go to a supermarket and you are deciding between the organic and nonorganic apples for a $0.25 cent difference. Over the course of your life, you can never catch up on apples what you spent in that one quick moment of spending. It’s like we make the big decisions quickly and the little ones are the ones we deliberate over and that is not healthy.
Hoff: No, I mean, it’s crazy. When you read about it, there’s just so many instances you think, yes, that’s me, that’s what I do. I want to get to credit cards and I think most of us have read that you do spend more when you use a card versus using cash but obviously, a card is easier to use, it’s more convenient, you get a lot of perks and benefits if you collect points or you get cash back, and so there’s a lot of incentives to people to use a credit card, especially as we shop online, for instance, but talk a little bit about how credit cards draw us in and how we can really end up spending way more than we ever intended to, and the psychology behind that. I think you talked a little bit about it in the book about how paying for something before versus after, etc.
Kreisler: Sure. So, one of the reasons why we tend to spend more and often forget how much we spend on these credit cards, like most people, when you ask them, “Do you know what your credit card bill will be at the end of the month?” They don’t, right? It can be a surprise sometimes. The reason why that tends to happen is because of something that we call the pain of paying and that is a concept that is found that there’s actually a pain when we pay for something. It stimulates the same region of the brain as physical pain, and so when we feel that pain, we pay attention to it, right? Like pain, if you put your hand on a stove, you feel the pain of the burn, and it tells you, oh, get my hand off the stove. That’s how things should work, but what ends up happening is a lot of times, we humans, instead of feeling that pain and thinking in that moment, oh, should I move my hand? Or in the case of paying, “Oh, should I really spend this amount?” we numb the pain. We will make it so we don’t feel the pain as much and that’s sort of what credit cards can do because the pain of paying is affected by two factors: one is the time between when you’re consuming something, an experience or a product and you pay for it, and the other is amount of attention you pay, and they are related because if you were to pull out a dollar bill, a $20 bill, from your wallet to pay for something, like a sandwich, you are very conscious of making that choice because it’s happening right at that time. If, however, you were to put the $20 down, and then a week later, eat the sandwich, when you’re eating the sandwich, you don’t really think about the pain and you don’t think about the payment, so you’re not as conscious of that, or if you would have paid afterward, you, at the moment of consuming, you don’t really think about what it costs because you are not handing over that bill, and so we don’t pay attention because it’s not happening at the moment, and we don’t stop to think about opportunity costs.
We don’t stop to think about whether or not we should make this choice. What credit cards do is they do two things: they both sort of affect the time between consumption and payment and they affect our attention to it. When you go to a restaurant and get the bill, you sign for your bill but you are not really paying. You’re just signing your signature and promising to pay later, so you don’t really think about it, then when you get the bill at the end of the month, the event, the dinner happened a couple weeks ago, so there’s a disconnect and it gets all sort of clumped together with all these other things you’ve bought. It’s just $100 out of a $3,000 bill so you don’t really think about it. At the same time, you don’t pay attention. Credit cards, it’s a piece of plastic. Jerry Seinfeld has a routine where he talks about helmets. He says people, humans, we are doing all these activities that we are bashing in our heads, and instead of stopping the head-bashing activities, we put a little piece of plastic on our head, and in some ways, credit cards are the same. It’s a little piece of plastic that separates the pain, we are descending over a plastic. It’s not quite – you mentioned the casino – it’s not quite a casino chip which is like a little round piece of fun plastic but it’s a step in that direction, so we don’t really pay attention to it because it doesn’t necessarily feel like we are spending money. We are just giving a piece of plastic and signing our name. Sometimes, we don’t even do that. Now, you can just sort of stick it in the chip or you can swipe it. Technology is getting more and more advanced where there is Apple Pay and there is Android Pay, and there is even some stores know where you don’t pay at all, like Amazon has a store you walk in and you just put the items in your bag and you walk out. A little chip reader sends you a bill later, and the less attention we pay to our payment, the less were likely to think about whether or not it’s a good decision.
Hoff: So, what do we do in this growing cashless world we live in? I mean, it’s becoming more and more common to just not use cash at all. Most people don’t even carry any bills in their wallet. What do we do to not fall for this and overspend?
Kreisler: Well, it’s a real challenge. That’s the real challenge of technology because these answers don’t use these technologies, and trying to use cash or more salient payment methods that you think of but that will become a challenge if those sort of options dwindle. I think that just being aware of the forces at play that when you do swipe your Apple Pay, like reminding yourself, I’m paying now. Just saying that can help, and the other thing is to use the technology that is maybe creating these challenges to create positive outcomes, right? To use technology to create automatic savings or there are companies that are developing things like you want to go on a trip and have a way to automatically pull some money each week or each month from your paycheck to fund toward that trip to create a goal, so use the same automatic money transfers, but instead of having it automatically go to a spend, have it go to a save or just something that is more productive.
Hoff: Yes, absolutely. I also want to talk about – we could spend a lot of time citing examples from the book and from life in general about how we kind of are tricked by different things, but going back to the marketing ploys out there, for example, you showed the difference between a cheeseburger and a curated whole handcrafted, etc., etc., which is the same thing, another cheeseburger but it has all of these words in it. Why do we fall for these words which it just means that you can mark up the price of that cheeseburger by 50 percent or more and we will pay for it because it feels more special?
Kreisler: Right, well, language and expectations are really sort of a unique value cue in that the negative side, as you will. If we expect something to be nicer, it’s a fancy presentation, like you said, a lot of flowery words, and a sommelier comes over and describes it as bovine-inspired fromage burger with triple-seeded bun that was aged 100 years, it makes us think it’s worth more. It becomes a substitute for the amount of effort that went into it and oftentimes, we judge value something based upon how much effort went in, like there are studies showing people will pay more to a locksmith that fumbles around and breaks a lot of locks and takes an hour to open your door, than someone who comes and opens the door in 30 seconds, which really, you are paying for incompetence, right? But we see that effort and that’s how we judge it because it’s hard to judge the value of getting into your home which is what should matter, like I want to get in my house, not how long did it take? So, language does that same thing, describing everything as artisanal. So all this descriptive language makes us think, oh, a lot of effort must have gone and this must be really special, because it’s hard for us to otherwise judge it.
Now, what is sort of unique and special about expectations is while it becomes a substitute for opportunity costs and it becomes a shortcut, they actually can change our experience. If you go to a nice restaurant with nice lighting and music, and ambiance, and fine wine, and you eat a burger that is otherwise the same burger as you got in a cheap restaurant, you can change your experience because you expect more and you get more excited, so it does actually add some value. That burger in a fancy restaurant in some ways is worth more than one like in a gas station, right, or sitting in your car, but it’s still the same burger, right? Like if you were to see them on the shelf next to each other, one described one way, one, the other, you should just keep the one that is the simple description for $5, but if you really consciously want that full experience, sometimes, that’s worth it, and that sort of highlights one of the overall things that we want to be clear in the book, is we don’t want to prescribe strict rules, like you should always put aside 10 percent and you should never buy a burger over $12, and you should always pay for things as you consume them. That’s not the case. You just want people to be aware of these cues to then you make the choice, and really quick, the example I always use is my honeymoon. On our honeymoon, we prepaid for it like a month beforehand, and we probably paid more than we would have if we had paid as we went or paid even after, but that was a special event. We did not want to have to think about the cost of the drinks that we had and the surfing. We just wanted to go and enjoy it and that was our conscious choice, and our concern in the book was that those types of decisions don’t become conscious choices, they just become default actions because it’s easier for us to do that. So if you want to go to a fancy restaurant and get a $20 burger, the most perfect way to budget and be an extreme miser, no, but if that’s the experience you want, and is of value to you, so be it.
Hoff: Yes, absolutely, and I did love the example in your book about your honeymoon and how kind of the couple that did not prepay were watching everything that they spent and they were being careful to drink every drink that they ordered, and they were being a lot more conscientious about it but it obviously changes the experience as well. OK, so you don’t prescribe any budgets and stuff in the book. I mean, you don’t really even recommend budgeting. Is that correct? Did I read that right?
Kreisler: No, budgeting is important. I think that driving yourself crazy over it is not healthy because life is to be enjoyed, occasionally spend on a nice bottle of wine, but budgeting can help and I think what is more useful than that strict budgeting sort of budget categories. I have this amount of discretionary spending for the week or I have this for food for the week, not to get too detailed because the more detailed you are, the more likely you are to sort of give up. Studies show people that try to count calories for every little thing eventually, it becomes too annoying and so they just give up and they don’t diet at all. So, have some systems in place. One thing that we advise people – and we do have some suggestions in the book, it’s not without advice – but one idea we’d give people to consider, if you will, is to have certain money put into their checking account from their paychecks, and others put into savings, because we tend to spend and consider the money we have to spend out of our checking account, what we see at the ATM, our discretionary spending, and if we sort of hide the money from ourselves, we will spend less, and even though on one level, we know we have that money, in the moment, we don’t see that. We just see what goes down in our balance in our checking, and ultimately, we humans are very adaptable, both with an increase in income and a decrease. If suddenly we get $100 less a week, we will adjust a little bit of our spending and after a month, we won’t even really notice, we will be back to who we are. Same as for getting $100 more to spend a week, you might get spoiled on some more lattes or have a nicer lunch now and then but eventually, we adjust and we are the same people that we were before, so if you sort of find a way to create a system to in essence not change our human nature and change these flaws but to work with them for ourselves, that’s what we hope people create, little systems and little rules for themselves that help them go on automatic or go on automatic in another direction.
Hoff: Yes, absolutely, and I read kind of some suggestions before from people that say you should really try to be more broad with your limitations versus specific, like you said, the counting calories versus maybe just eating healthy and splurging once a week. OK, so I always like to leave people with three things to really think about. What are three psychological traps maybe that we find ourselves in that we should be aware of going forward?
Kreisler: Sure, well, I think one psychological trap we touched on, that’s technology. Technology that makes it easier that it’s promoted as saying it’s easier to do these things and it’s for you, just beware. If it makes it easier to spend, it means you’re going to spend more, so be conscious. If someday, they introduced blink to pay or every time you blink, you shouldn’t sign up for that. Another thing is list prices or prices that seem irrelevant, like people we have in an example in the book, you go to a shoe store and in the window of the shoe store is a $2,000 pump. No one’s ever going to buy $2,000 pumps unless their name is Kardashian, right? So you are not going to buy that but then you go in the store and all of a sudden, there’s a $300 pump – and I don’t know a thing about women’s shoes so I don’t know if that’s [26:54] – but there’s a $300 shoes and suddenly, even if you’re not conscious of it, in the back of your mind, “Oh, compared to $2,000, it’s good.” So beware, beware of the first number you see in a purchase situation because it’s often there to trick you and to get you to adjust your expectations. I think the other thing is a broad issue of just stop and think now and then, and not all the time, but thinking, is this really the best use of my money and what else I can do with it? Again, going back to the food example, if you sit on your couch and you are watching a movie and you have a giant tub of popcorn, you’re just going to eat until you are done with that tub. If, however, you have the same amount of popcorn but it’s broken into six or seven little bags, every time you have to finish one and you open the next one, it’s a moment, just a moment, you’re still watching the movie, to think, “Oh, should I open this next bag?” The same way we are spending. Finding yourself ways to every now and then just stop and think for a second, should I do this? That’s all that we hope people do and we think that just doing those little moments, it’s going to improve people’s financial health.
Hoff: Absolutely, absolutely. One trick I used to use is I love to travel and so when I went to purchase something, I would say, “That’s one-tenth of a ticket,” or something like that and if you just think about it that way, it does become painful even if you’re using a credit card to make that purchase and to know that you are foregoing something that you will get more pleasure from down the road, but our show is called Charged Up. What gets you charged up about educating people about the psychology behind their spending?
Kreisler: I really love hearing the different things in the book or the different stories that people connect to because we have stories of all these different people and difference psychologies and I found that everyone connects to one thing. It’s like, “Oh my God, that’s me. I do that.” It’s those sort of click moments for me that get me excited and feel like I’m connecting and I’m helping people, because we can hear financial literacy and education how you want but until you really get it personalized, it’s not going to make it a difference. So, when I see somebody, like “Oh, yes. I do that, I get that now,” and then I explain over the book, explains why everything that goes into that gets me excited.
Hoff: Thank you so much. This is great information. I really recommend the book. You’re going to enjoy it. There is a lot of relevant information in there. You will find yourself in many of those scenarios and I think it’s really a good eye-opener, a good reminder of what we need to be paying attention to as we go about our financial lives. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Kreisler: Thank you, Jenny, I really appreciate it. I hope your listeners enjoyed our discussion and check out the book.