The other day, without much thought, I pulled into a burger spot and paid for an overpriced, bland meal. It was a hasty, bad decision. Immediately, I felt annoyed at myself for not waiting to eat later or at least checking Yelp to search for a tastier, more affordable option.
Later, when recounting this to my sister, I explained, “I just feel a lot of decision fatigue.” It’s a sentiment I’ve had a lot in the past week, as I’ve been traveling on the East Coast to visit family and friends. Between all the scheduling and not being able to rely on my normal routines, I’m making more decisions each day than I ordinarily would.
I always feel a tad melodramatic when I complain about decision fatigue, and so it got me wondering: Is decision fatigue even a real thing? If so, can it have an effect on our finances?
Apparently, the concept of decision fatigue originated in this 1998 study, which shows that we do in fact have a limited reserve of mental resources. Similar to how we experience muscle fatigue after exercise, making decisions can be cognitively taxing. For example, in this study
, participants who were forced to make a series of decisions (e.g., do they want a pen or candle? A red or black T-shirt?) were consequently less likely to exhibit self-control when asked to place their hand in ice water. Meanwhile, participants who didn’t make decisions could keep their hand in the cold water twice as long.
The more decisions we make, the more likely we are to resort to one of two options: act impulsively or do nothing at all. As noted in this article, decision-making involves trade-offs, aka compromises, “a complex human ability and therefore one of the first to decline when willpower is depleted. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price.”
So how might that impact our financial lives? I came across this interesting study
that shows a relationship between poverty and diminished behavioral regulation. Essentially, researchers found that “poverty causes depleted performance, rather than the other way around.” Poor people are more likely to experience decision fatigue than those who are rich because they’re forced to make more difficult trade-offs. Someone on a tight budget might exert a good deal of mental energy deciding between buying toilet paper or a carton of milk, whereas an affluent person can make routine decisions more easily. Therefore, someone who struggles financially might be more likely to make impulse purchases.
Generally speaking, though, anyone is susceptible to impulsive, reckless financial decisions when they’re feeling mentally exhausted. In my search for solutions, I came across some predictable but helpful reminders: Make sure you get enough sleep (a common culprit for me), automate mundane tasks if possible, simplify your wardrobe, remove distractions, make important decisions first, accept that some choices are “good enough” and don’t question your final decision. I’m definitely gonna try to incorporate some of these tips.
Before I go, we’re working on an episode in which I collaborate with a financial therapist (yes, that’s a real job!) to help answer listener questions. So if something’s been on your mind that you’d like feedback on, please shoot us a note! It can be about sticky work situations, money anxieties or relationship troubles that relate to finances. Whatever it is, you can email us your questions for the money therapist at email@example.com
or leave us a voicemail at (347) 746-4848. We’ll try our best to help, and who knows? Maybe we’ll take a decision or two off your plate. — Reema