Are Emotions Controlling Your Personal Finances?

Sheila Willis |

When it comes to our actions, we rely 99% on our rational decision-making and 1% on our emotions, and it’s often that 1% that actually triggers action.  So, instead of following the rational line of thought that we so carefully forged in the left side of our brain, our actions are skewed by whatever emotion is swirling around in the right side.  Because we can’t put emotions in a spreadsheet, we can’t account for them when it’s time to take action.  And that is what usually gets us in financial trouble.  Here are a few of the financial dilemmas people face in which emotion tends to rule:

1. Purchase Decisions

A lot of people have become serious about budgeting and prioritizing their spending.  Unfortunately, a lot of that happens on paper.  When the tires hit the road for the mall or grocery store, we are always vulnerable to our emotions.  Purchase decisions are generally part based in emotion.  How we are feeling at the time, or our general attitude, or our desire to keep up with Jones, can all come into play; people tend to lead with their emotion and then rationalize their decision later.  It’s also emotions that lead us to using our credit cards instead of cash. While we know that using cash for our transactions helps restrict our spending, we can easily turn to a credit card when an urge to splurge comes over us.  This can be evidenced with the consumer borrowing data that shows how, after credit card debt and spending plunged in 2008 – 2009, it has suddenly spiked again, just as people are starting to feel better about their financial situations.  And, for those whose situations have not markedly improved, buying things can trigger good feelings.  The fact that people are using their credit cards more, even though the average income hasn’t increased, is indicative of spending more than people can afford and adding to debt.

2. Paying Down Debt

Many people who are saddled with debt got that way with multiple credit card accounts.  And, typically, at least one of those accounts is cranking out double digit interest charges.  So, when the decision is made to follow a systematic plan to pay down debt, the rational approach would be to pay down the high interest debt first.   The problem is that paying down high interest accounts, especially if they carry a sizable amount of debt, is a slow slog, and many people become discouraged when they don’t see enough progress in their plan.  The innate need for instant gratification or positive reinforcement guides many people towards the smaller debts first, where they can more easily gauge their progress.  While there’s no really bad option when paying off debt, as long as it gets paid off, the small debt approach is likely to end up costing more in interest charges over time.  We’re motivated by being able to check things off of lists, so we tend to tackle the small jobs first.  If that’s what it takes to get through the whole list, then it’s not necessarily a bad thing. But, the costs will be higher. Logical? No, but we can easily rationalize our emotions to make it more palatable.

3.  Investment Decisions

For those who are able to put money aside for retirement, investing can be an emotional roller coaster.  Over the last three years, fear has driven some investors’ decisions, which is the primary reason why some are not gaining any ground in their retirement accounts.  It’s the fear of loss that drives investors to sell off their holdings, and it’s the fear of missing the boat that drives them back into the market.  Unfortunately, most investors tend to sell only after the market has sunk and they wait to buy when it is nearing or over the top. It is virtually impossible to generate positive returns that way.  The best course is to stay the course. The market will experience drops, and as it has done throughout history, it will Increase more than it decreases. Investors, who stay focused on their objectives without worrying about chasing the performance of the market, will always do better by staying invested and making small adjustments rather than trying to time their way in and out of the market.

4.  Overcoming Emotions in Finance

Unfortunately, there is no easy solution that can take the emotion out of finance. Emotions are very powerful and very personal. The first step may be the most important, and that is to become aware of your emotions when you are making financial decisions. That may enable you to break the rational-emotional decision making cycle. That means thinking all decisions through using logic.  Then as you are about to take action, ask yourself, “why am I doing this?” If you find yourself rationalizing after you have used your logic to make the initial decision, you are probably being influenced by your emotions. Stop, and take yourself back to your original rationale to determine what action really makes sense. It’s not easy, but practice makes perfect.