Can I trick my brain by going cash-only?

plus Taco Bell + Tom Brady
͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ ͏‌ 
Money
May 18, 2022 • Issue #143
Dollar Scholar
Hi y’all —

There is a certain type of sign — usually handmade, Sharpie-on-cardboard — that strikes fear into my heart the second I spot it behind a bar: “CASH ONLY.”

As a general rule, I don’t carry much cash. Not only is it a hassle to obtain (see: issue #104), but it’s also germy and largely unnecessary, especially when options like Cash App and tap-to-pay are available. On top of that, paying with cash kind of sucks — I can feel myself losing money in a way I can mostly ignore when I’m simply swiping a card. It’s like a wake-up call, hard evidence that I’m splurging on something I probably shouldn’t be. 

But after a recent happy hour, and an eye-opening look at the bank statement that followed, I realized that $15 cocktails can make a dent in my budget... even if I didn't hit up the ATM before ordering them. Now I'm wondering whether going cash-only might be a way to trick myself into spending less.

Will I spend less money if I force myself to use cash more often? Or will it burn a hole in my pocket?

I called Joydeep Srivastava, a marketing professor at Temple University who studies consumer decision-making, to find out what’s actually going on in my brain when I use cash. He told me it has to do with something experts call mental accounting, a theory that humans value money differently depending on the scenario.

Because of this, Srivastava says that using cash can indeed be an effective way to fool myself into budgeting. If I get $100 out of the ATM, thinking, “OK, this is my Starbucks money for the month,” I’m likely to limit myself to spending $100 on Starbucks for the month. I’ve mentally earmarked it for petty expenses, and the physical presence of that cash in my wallet is a constant reminder of how finite it is.

Unfortunately, the opposite can also happen. Because I’ve already told myself I’m devoting the $100 cash to frivolous purchases, it may feel easier to justify using it up on items I don’t need. 
 
i only carry cash for the purpose of buying taco truck tacos
A big concept in behavioral economists is the pain of paying, or the negative feelings we associate with parting with our hard-earned cash. Usually, Srivastava says, the pain of paying is higher with cash than credit cards or other electronic methods.

But when I've already mentally written off the money, the pain of paying is less.

“You say to yourself, ‘I have $100. I can spend it on anything I like’ … which you would probably not have [otherwise],” he adds. “Given that you’ve allowed yourself the luxury to spend, it could very well be that you’re spending up to the limit — even for stuff you probably don’t need.”

Interestingly enough, one way to curb this temptation is to take out larger bills. Srivastava has done research that shows people are reluctant to break $50s or $100s, whereas $10s and $20s are nbd. 

“It’s this tussle between your long-term self, which wants to save, and your short-term self, which wants to indulge," he says.

That's where the denomination of the money comes in: It helps one "self" edge out the other.

On that note, George Loewenstein, an economics and psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University, told me he actually puts cash in the same category as debit cards because they “lead to an immediate deduction from one’s savings/cash stockpile.” Credit cards and digital payments, meanwhile, “enable one to go seamlessly into debt without realizing that it’s happening” because the funds are so amorphous.

While using cash can be a good short-term move because it’ll force me to track my spending more closely, behavioral financial advisor Dawn Dahlby, says it’s not a fix for deeper issues.

“I don’t want to tell anybody to stop spending and just get cash out,” she adds. “Think through your spending. Prioritize your spending, and have a plan.”

Rather than waste my time schlepping to the ATM, Dahlby says I should find an app that will track my expenditures — and can ping me if I’m going overboard.

Loewenstein recommends a similar approach. In an email interview, he explained that he thinks it’s more powerful for someone to focus on taking steps that can save them money almost painlessly, like canceling unneeded subscriptions, instead of sweating more minor stuff.

“Trying to cut down on spending by cutting out small things is like trying to save money by turning up (or down, depending on the season) the thermostat — it causes a lot of small pains that may not be worth it,” Loewenstein says.
THE BOTTOM LINE
(but please don't tell me you scrolled past all of my hard work)
If I actually feel like my spending is out of control, I should tackle the root cause. But there are legit psychological reasons that suggest using cash more often could lead me to spend less on silly stuff. 

“We’re always trying to balance the present vs the future,” Srivastava says. “These small little nudges — like, for example, the denomination or how we spend — all serve as visual cues to get us to be in the present or think about the future a little bit more.”
Think
VIA GIPHY

RECEIPT OF THE WEEK
check out this wild celebrity purchase
Tom Brady
 
VIA INSTAGRAM
Football player Tom Brady just signed a 10-year, $375 million contract to be an NFL analyst on Fox Sports once he actually retires. That is an eye-popping figure, but remember, this is a man who treated himself to a $6 million yacht last year after winning the Super Bowl. He’s not likely to fumble the bag.

INTERNET GOLD
five things I'm loving online right now
1 Down in my home state, two researchers have recently discovered that it’s possible to grow plants in lunar soil. Scientists from the University of Florida were able to sprout small flowers in about a teaspoon of dirt collected on the Apollo 11, 12 and 17 missions to the moon. “Humans are explorers,” one analyst told the Tampa Bay Times. “Plants are what enable us to be explorers.”
2 Speaking of plants, check out this website that lets you listen to forests.
3 I’m obsessed with this minor-league baseball broadcaster who plays with language, saying a player who struck out was “yanked out of there like a shirtless passenger on a Spirit Airlines flight” or getting so excited he starts “dancing like a Spice Girls cover band inside an earthquake simulation.” Zanaboni 2024.
4 Taco Bell oil painting.
5 Y’all, just LOOK at how small this cat is.
 

401(K)ITTY CONTRIBUTION
send me cute pictures of your pets, please
Bandit
VIA BILL PIZZO
This is Bandit. Bandit sticks to a budget, but he also avoids needless spending by using collar bills for his catnip purchases.

See you next week.
 
Julia
 
P.S. Do you use cash regularly? Do you feel it impacts your spending habits? What’s your Taco Bell order? Send Benjamins to julia.glum@money.com or @SuperJulia on Twitter.
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