Can the tax code cause us to spend too much?

April 15, 2011 BY danariely

April 15th — Tax day is upon us, so it’s a perfect time to contemplate a few aspects of taxes.

In the past I’ve written about how I used to think that tax day was a wonderful day of civic engagement – a day to think about how much we make and contribute, what taxes we pay and what services we get in return. Of course, over the years, as my taxes have become more complex, this task becomes one that is less about civic engagement and thoughtfulness, and more about annoyance and frustration. But that’s for another time.

Today I want to talk about the fact that the US tax system makes it very difficult for us to understand how much money we make and how this may actually lead us to spend more money than we really have. Think about it for a moment—do you know your net monthly income?  I suspect you don’t, and I think that the tax system is to blame.

In many other countries, the tax code does not allow for the same level of deductions we have, and because of that for most people the whole amount of taxes is automatically deducted from their paycheck – and this is it.  Now, in this situation when you ask people how much they earn [and yes, in other countries people do actually ask each other what they make] they will tell you their net monthly income – the amount of money that they get to take home at the end of each month. How do they know?  Well, it is the number that is printed in bold letters on their paystub.

Contrast this to the US. 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. If this is right, it means that changing the structure of deductions could be one way to help people understand how much money they actually have and how they can save more.