There is no part of our daily thoughts that is more relentlessly, skillfully, and resourcefully manipulated than our decisions on whether and how we spend or invest our money.
Every purchase decision, and in fact every moment leading to them, you are playing a poker game against a professional player with all the time, training, and support in the world, who has made a career out of understanding your style of play, and who has very good information about your cards and even your personal life.
But this metaphor is inaccurate, because it leaves out two important factors. First, you aren’t playing a poker game, but actually hundreds at the same time, each of them against a wholly focused organization. And second, you’re playing it using only your head, maybe a search engine if it’s a really big purchase, while your counterpart is more likely than not backed by entire data centers’ worth of data and computing power.
On the face of this, most “Home Economics” / consumer awareness advice is at best hopelessly naive. Not because it’s wrong, but because it’s entirely inadequate to the commercial environment every participant in a contemporary economy finds him or herself in. Common sense and open eyes are, of course, necessary, but they are as insufficient to deal in a somewhat equal standing with a modern sales organization as they would be to deal with a computer-backed professional poker player.
The cost of this disparity can go from crushing debt and bankruptcy to hard to quantify lost opportunities for happiness, fulfillment, or whatever goals we pursue. It’s not that spending or investing money is antithetical to achieving our goals, but the efficacy with which we use our money is a very influential factor on how likely we are to achieve them, and that’s an area in which we are, day in and day out, hopelessly outmatched.
So what do you do if you find yourself playing a table against professionals and their computers? At the very least, you should use your own! Personal accounting programs and such are a good first step, but what we really need is constant analytical support through our economic activities. Not to choose our goals — which are ultimately existential choices — but to figure out how best to use our money to achieve them, and to “patch” the many cognitive vulnerabilities that make it so easy for us to stray from our best meaning plans. Such a system would not only compare prices and characteristics across different options in products and services, but also help us understand if they are linked or not to our goals and constraints, using all the available information. It would remind us that infomercial exercise machines have no measurable impact on fitness, estimate the lifetime cost/value impact of a course based on job compensation patterns, and maybe help us choose a gift for a loved one based on their desires and interests, rather than on what perfumes or ties a store is trying to get rid of today. None of those are computationally unfeasible tasks, and could have a huge impact on how happy we are over the course of our lives.
Companies have gotten exponentially smarter at selling us things through using scientific research, data, and computing power. But none of these tools are outside our reach as consumers. The personal stakes for us are immense, and it’s time for “consumers” to take this game as seriously as sellers do.