Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Illusion of Money: Yet Another Thing That Makes You Spend Too Much

Dan Ariely, a Duke University behavioral economist, and author of the book Predictably Irrational, suggests that the complexity of the U.S. tax code is yet another force that leads Americans to spend more than we can afford:

In the US, we all know the gross amount that we make a year, but it’s not as clear what our net income is. It’s actually very complex because we get our salary, some of which the employer withholds, and we have no idea what we’ll get back when tax day comes around. We can get back some money (depending on our expenses/deductibles), trends in our stock market portfolio, health care, etc. And we don’t figure this out until April 15th (if not later) of the following year!

And what are the consequences of knowing our gross yearly income and not much else? I think it causes us to feel richer than we really are and spend accordingly. Why would this be the case? There’s a phenomenon we call the “illusion of money,” which is the idea that we typically pay attention to nominal amounts of money rather than real amounts. For example, the illusion of money means that if inflation is 8%, and you get a 10% raise, you would feel better than if there was no inflation and you got a 3-4% raise. The basic idea is that we pay attention to the nominal amount rather than the purchasing power, and don’t realize what our money is really worth.

In terms of our tax code, this suggests that in the US we focus on our gross yearly income, feel richer than we really are, and consequently end up spending more money.