Why We Do Dumb Things With Money

“How could I be so stupid?”  Maybe you’re looking at a bulging credit card bill after over-spending during the holidays, just hoping your tax refund is enough to pay it off.  Or maybe you’re looking at a budget that simply won’t balance—for the 77th consecutive month—wondering how you made it this far in life without being able to master the simple math of addition and subtraction. 

Why is it that informed, educated and even brilliant people can be so dense when it comes to basic matters of personal finance?

I’m reading a book called The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande, based on his fascinating article, “The Checklist,” in the December 2007 edition of The New Yorker.  On his way to making a compelling case for the use of checklists to ensure accuracy in even the most multifaceted procedures—like emergency room surgery or skyscraper construction—he gives us some insight into why we’re capable of doing dumb things in seemingly simpler processes.  In his words:

Two professors who study the science of complexity—Brenda Zimmerman of York University and Sholom Glouberman of the University of Toronto—have proposed a distinction among three different kinds of problems in the world: the simple, the complicated, and the complex.

Zimmerman and Glouberman give us a tangible example of each type of problem.  Simple is to baking a cake from a mix as complicated is to sending a rocket to the moon.  The latter requires “…multiple people, often multiple teams, and specialized expertise.”  But once you’ve marshaled the necessary manpower and know-how to send a rocket to the moon, the exercise can be successfully repeated.

This is not the case in complex problems, however.  The example they give for a complex problem is raising a child.  “Expertise is valuable but most certainly not sufficient.  Indeed, the next child may require an entirely different approach from the previous one.”  As a parent of two, this news was both heartening and frightening.  But it also helped me realize something groundbreaking, at least to me:

While many matters of personal finance seem so simple on their face, they’re actually quite complex…because WE’RE complex.

Even as a single person with no dependents or pets, our innate proclivity for self-deception is remarkable.  But within the context of a couple or family, it’s easy to see how the “simple” discipline of cash flow management, for example, can become quite complex.

Further complicating the problem is that most areas of personal finance require perpetual decision making, in which each individual decision to save, spend, buy, sell, re-allocate, contribute, distribute, insure, reduce coverage, file, expense, deduct, bequeath, endow, receive or disinherit is its own fertile ground for success or failure that could compound positively or negatively to impact the whole!

So let’s all enjoy a collective “WHEW!” as we momentarily enjoy the fact that making mistakes with money doesn’t mean we’re a complete nincompoop.  Of course, this is an explanation, not an excuse.  We’re still responsible.  Here are three ways we can all keep our financial decision making as smart as we are:

1)     Be cognizant of things financial.  Be present and deliberate when dealing with your money.  Keep these topics at front of mind by reading a good financial blog or two (ha, ha).  And consider reading my friend and colleague, Carl Richards’, new book, The Behavior Gap: Simple Ways to Stop Doing Dumb Things with Money.  (It’s the only financial book I know of that is strewn with pictures!)

2)     Develop good habits.  We often need to force ourselves to be cognizant because personal finance either bores us or is loaded with self-deception.  The development of good habits, beginning first-and-foremost with a functional cash flow system, will help us develop the behavior we’d prefer.

3)     Be accountable to someone or something.  Some are willing and able to develop their own system to maintain accountability, but for many, a healthy relationship with a professional financial planner is the key.  In my Forbes post this week, “Hey Financial Planners, Do Your Job!” I gave advisors a gentle nudge, encouraging them (us) to make financial planning a simpler, more client friendly process that eliminates complexity instead of creating it.

What are some other ways you’ve been able to keep from making dumb financial decisions in your life?

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