Being a first time home owner, I had no idea what to expect in terms of recurring utility bills. For the first three months the electricity averaged around $85, which I was very pleased with. But that was before the heat and I knew an increase was coming. So I wasn’t too surprised yesterday when the bill came and it showed I owe the electric company $300.

My system 1 reaction was “$10 a day to cool my entire house? That’s a good deal.” My system 2 reaction didn’t change how I felt about the dollar amount, but I was pretty amazed at the subconscious jiu-jitsu my brain performed in order to make myself feel okay about the fact that my bill quadrupled. The $300 was a threat to my internal financial system and my brain immediately pulled an auto-correct.

A few years ago I saw Daniel Kahneman speak and somebody in the crowd asked why he and Tversky called it “heuristics” instead of rules of thumb. He said, “A rule of thumb is something that you follow deliberately. Heuristics, they just happen to you.”

You can have a PhD in behavioral science and still be completely powerless against your own worst instincts. That’s the bad news. The good news is that technology has made it possible to short-circuit the likelihood that you will engage in financial self sabotage.

The best way to prevent yourself from thinking fast and doing something you’ll regret later is to automate everything. Here are a few examples.

  • Retirement plans. If you have access to a 401(k), take it. Money comes out of your paycheck every two weeks and goes directly into whatever investments you’ve chosen. The less energy you waste thinking about what the market is going to do tomorrow, the better off you’ll be.
  • Bills. Don’t rely on yourself to sit down once a month and pay your bills. If auto-pay is an option, use it.
  • Savings. You now have the ability to schedule money to leave your checking account on the same day that you get paid. The easiest way to save money is to not spend it. Out of sight out of mind.

Your cognitive biases won’t cease to exist just because you read about them in a book. The best chance we have of accomplishing our financial goals is to remove ourselves from the tasks we’re just not very good at.


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