Best of Frank: The Tragedy of Impulse Saving

[I'm off this week, enjoying the waning days of summer and catching up on a few things I promised to finish before September. In the meantime, please enjoy this example of that great American summer tradition, reruns. This post originally ran March 25, 2009.]

 

As any reader of this blog knows, I enjoy nothing more than tweaking the nose of personal finance conventional wisdom. Well, joy of joys, yesterday’s New York Times had an article, in the science section no less, that spits in Reading_glasses Cropconventional wisdom’s face, knees it in the groin and then kicks it as it rolls on the ground.

The piece discussed the work of Ran Kivetz and Anat Keinan, two professors of marketing from Columbia and Harvard Business Schools respectively. (Marketing professor is, incidentally, the same line of work as the authors of The Millionaire Next Door.)  They have discovered a new malady to avoid: saver’s remorse.  It’s just what it sounds like: that sad feeling you get with money in your pocket that you could have spent in some enjoyable way but, in a moment of weakness, chose to save.

This is just so awesome.

The sober professors don’t call it saver’s remorse.  I think John Tierney, The Times’ science guy, came up with that.  They use the term hyperopia, literally excessive farsightedness.  Sufferers of hyperopia “deprive themselves of indulgence and instead overly focus on acquiring and consuming utilitarian necessities, acting responsibly, and doing ‘the right thing.’” (K&K 2006 p.274)

Saver’s remorse (hyperopia) is the logical counterpart to buyer’s remorse (myopia).  Just as you might grow to regret that impulse purchase over time, the research shows that a person can grow to regret not grabbing immediate gratification.  Kivetz and Keinan asked college students right after winter vacation if they wished that they had spent more time studying or partying over the break.  Studying won.  Then they asked them the same question about the break the year before, and regrets about not studying more and not partying more were tied.  And when the researchers asked a group of alums back on campus for their 40th reunion, regrets about not partying enough won in a landslide.

Like most good social science research, once you read this it suddenly seems awfully obvious.  I’m only about halfway to my 40th, but in hindsight I really wish I had adjusted the beer/grades ratio in college more in favor of beer.  And there’s the old adage, with some truth to it, that nobody on their deathbed ever wished they had spent more time at the office.

It turns out that at some level we know we can be irrational in a hyperopia way and so sometimes act irrationally to counteract it.  In a paper that Kivetz wrote with Itamar Simonson of Stanford, test subjects were asked to choose between two possible raffle prizes, for example $100 cash or a romantic dinner for two costing $90.  Even though a winner of the money could just buy the dinner and pocket $10, many (about 24%) chose the dinner option anyway.  Why?  Because they knew that if they got the money they would just save it and then regret not going to the restaurant later on.

This research makes me grin from ear to ear. (Seriously, I think I may have pulled a muscle.  I guess I should have warmed up first.  I’m a little out of practice.)  Just about all personal finance advice, from Suze Orman and Dave Ramsey down to the most obscure frugality blog, takes as a given that spending myopia, the tendency to buy too much stuff for immediate enjoyment rather than save, is inherent to the human condition.  Not so.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that myopia isn’t common, or even that it isn’t more common than hyperopia.  I bet somewhere there is a study where way more than 24% of people chose, for example, a savings bond worth $90 over $100 in cash as a possible raffle prize. David Bach has sold millions of books that basically explain how to make exactly that sort of irrational choice, so there must be a lot of myopics out there.

But they are not everybody, and possibly not even the majority.  (There must exist a third group, the 20/20s, who don’t systematically regret either spending or saving later on.)  Myopics are much higher profile than hyperopics, and are much more likely to seek help, because spending myopia has the obvious result of financial distress.  Spending hyperopia, on the other hand, results only in wistful old people.

No Comments

  • By Rob Bennett, August 28, 2009 @ 9:40 am

    This post is right on, in my view.

    There is nothing inherently good about saving anymore than there is anything inherently good about spending. The goal should be to spend when spending offers the superior value proposition and to save when saving offers the superior value proposition.

    Most people today spend too much. That’s because of the influence of marketing campaigns. But those who are involved in the frugality movement often save too much. They are being influenced by a different sort of marketing, an anti-spending marketing.

    Rob

  • By Neil, August 28, 2009 @ 3:13 pm

    Hmmm…it’s not that I disagree that sometimes spending offers better value than saving, but the analogy between spending money and spending less time studying in university…seems iffy. The great thing about saving is that if you regret saving the money, you can still go out and spend it. It’s not a missed opportunity, just delayed.

  • By Mr. Not the Jet Set, August 29, 2009 @ 12:12 am

    Saver’s remorse? This is ridiculous. Neil is right – if you somehow saved more than you should have, it is very rare that the opportunity to spend it is gone.

    I mean, it’s a nice theory and all, but I think you’re going to have a hard time backing it up with people actually regretting saving.

  • By kitty, August 30, 2009 @ 4:42 pm

    I am with Rob Bennett here. I’ve been in a situations in which I choose not to spend money – mostly on vacations – and then regretted it. Usually it happened in places where I don’t plan to go back to for a while e.g. on a trip to Spain several years ago or last year in Rome. I don’t spend money on something I like, then in another town I change my mind start looking for it and cannot find anything similar.

    Another time when one might regret not having spent money is when you get old or if you find out you are ill. So you no longer have energy to do some of the things you haven’t done in the past, but you do have all the money you saved. Except for you may be too weak to enjoy it or just don’t have much time left to live.

  • By Roger, August 30, 2009 @ 8:29 pm

    I can definitely see situations where spending too little money can lead to regrets, particularly when you’re young. There’s a difference between spending on material goods and spending on experiences. For the former, you’re likely to have little regrets; few people look back during retirement and lament that they didn’t buy a bigger television.

    However, if you’re missing out on good, interesting experiences in order to save money, you’re more likely to regret it later. Cutting back on your socializing to save money can leave you with regrets that it’s too late to fix.

    Take the socializing example that Frank cited; not partying during college could save you a great deal of money, but you wouldn’t have any stories out of the deal. Yes, you could spend the money you save later in life, but it’s not the same to go out partying when you reach forty. Sometimes, experiences you miss out on really are gone.

  • By reason first, August 31, 2009 @ 2:01 pm

    “…those who are involved in the frugality movement often save too much. They are being influenced by a different sort of marketing, an anti-spending marketing.”

    Support, please.

    I’ve noticed that your replies often say:

    “In a sense it’s true and in another it’s not…” and then go on for several paragraphs, without really making an effective argument for either proposition.

    While I laud evaluating all sides of an argument, there ought to at least *be* an argument, one based on substance, and not just an apparent unstoppable impulse to post on any and every subject, even when the responder really has nothing new to add to the dialog.

  • By Alexandra, August 31, 2009 @ 3:21 pm

    I had savers remorse last year. I saved a wack of cash to use when I was on maternity leave last year. By the end of my maternity leave, I had hardly used any of my savings up. I ended up going back to work wishing I had spent more time hiring babysitters and going out for dinner with my husband, rather than sitting at home with a crying baby!

  • By ElizabethG, August 31, 2009 @ 8:01 pm

    I had written about a similar topic, looking at whether the pressure coming from the frugal movement meant people were forgoing purchases and experiences that would have been genuinely helpful and enjoyable. In particular, what concerns me is the guilt factor that people have in spending if they can afford it:

    Has Frugal Advice Gone Too Far?

  • By Rob Bennett, September 1, 2009 @ 6:56 am

    While I laud evaluating all sides of an argument, there ought to at least *be* an argument….

    I am the person who discovered the errors in the studies that financial planners use to tell us how to structure our retirement plans. John Greaney is the author of one of the studies that is in error. He has organized a group of Goon posters who follow me around from blog to blog putting up posts of this sort. I oppose this harassment and have argued that blog owners should take action when obviously insincere individuals engage in this sort of behavior.

    For any who have doubts as to whether there really are humans who would engage in such low behavior, here is a link to the discussion board owned by Greaney that he uses to organize these attacks on the Personal Finance Blogophere:

    http://www.s152957355.onlinehome.us/cgi-bin/yabb2/YaBB.pl

    Rob

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