Ask Ariely: On Overwhelming Options, Better Budgets, and Expensive Emotions

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Hi, Dan.

I offered to purchase a computer as a gift for a close relative, and I asked him to pick out the one he wanted. But he simply can’t make a choice. He keeps comparing different models and researching all the available features, even though I’m sure he will never use most of them. How can I help him to make a decision?

—Stanley 

Choice paralysis, or what’s sometimes called “paralysis by analysis,” is a common problem. Some famous experiments in behavioral science have shown that making decisions is harder when you have too many options and too much information. To force your relative to limit his search, tell him that the two of you will sit down together and go shopping online for two hours; then you’ll buy the best computer you’ve found in that time. Using firm deadlines is a good way to combat our indecisive nature.

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Dear Dan,

I use a budgeting app to set monthly spending goals for each category of expense, but every month I find that I’ve gone over my limit in multiple categories. Are budgeting apps just a waste of time?

—Anthony 

The struggle that you are experiencing is not between you and your app but between your emotional self, which wants to get things now, and your cognitive self, which wants you to plan for a better future. My guess is that you’d be in an even worse situation without the app.

Budgeting isn’t effective if you set a spending goal and then don’t think about it again until the end of the month. Instead, try using the app to analyze your spending every other day. That way, when you find yourself spending too much, you’ll be able to adjust your behavior to stay on track for your monthly goal, rather than discovering you’ve overspent only when it’s too late to do anything about it.

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Dear Dan,

Our daughter attends a very expensive private university, where I recently attended an event. There were lots of freebies for us to take, including fancy snacks and notebooks with the university logo. I was excited to get these items, but of course they aren’t really free since we pay so much in tuition.

I thought about this last week when my tennis team was playing a match at a different club, and we were asked to pay a $10 fee to use the facilities. This felt annoying and unfair, even though I spend a lot more than that on my tennis hobby overall. Why did I get so excited about those “free” items and so angry about this small expense, when neither of them really matters in the big picture?

—Juliet 

The problem is that we tend to think about each of our expenses separately, rather than seeing them in their overall context. This is the source of many of our irrational financial decisions and emotions—whether it’s paying high fees to money managers who don’t justify the cost, or paying Amazon an annual fee for “free” shipping or getting annoyed when the supermarket starts charging a nickel for a plastic bag. It’s not easy to think clearly about each small expense in terms of our total financial situation, but if you can, you will be able to make better decisions about money.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.