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How Decision Fatigue Can Impact Your Spending

decision fatigue

In most of our financial education classes we stress the importance of making good decisions about money as early as possible, and for very good reason. The sooner you save for retirement, the more you’ll have later in life; the quicker you identify potential problem spending or debt issues the quicker you can impact your credit; a good financial foundation can have you hitting your goals ahead of schedule.  In a normal world, this would all be true, but the world is not normal right now, so we may need to have a different approach to a few things.

How Habits Help Us

Habits are important because they allow our minds to rest while we work on some more complex matters. I’m from Philadelphia and have taken more buses, trolleys and subways than I could ever count. There have been times when I looked up and I was at my destination and couldn’t remember the commute, but I had worked out a piano or chorale piece that I had been struggling with.  I’m sure you have stories about driving to work looking up and wondering how you got there, but meanwhile you’d figured out how to deal with a problem, write the perfect email or solve a nagging issue. Your body, by way of habit, knew when to stop at a red light, knew where to turn and which parking spot was yours.

While we are at home, working, living, meeting online, figuring out what’s for breakfast, lunch and dinner, participating in school activities for kids, and generally dealing with a zillion other things, we find we don’t have those familiar spaces to zone out. Those margins of time have narrowed and our lives are now filled with an abundance of things we have to think about; some urgent, some important and some just plain annoying but they clamor for our attention none-the-less, and it can be exhausting. Paper money is easier to carry than coins—the currency of our time feels like hundreds of pennies in our pockets—heavy—being weighed down by having to make so many more different choices because things are just different.

What Is Decision Fatigue?

This is called decision fatigue and it can be defined as the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long session (or season because of COVID-19) of decision making. Decision fatigue can be described as the decline in energy and focus you experience after making too many decisions. For instance, if you’ve been watching what you eat for a long time, one day it may become easier to say, “Oh, just give me the triple, barbecue, double bacon burger on glazed donuts”…because you’re tired.

This mental fatigue can absolutely impact your finances. Decision fatigue can cloud your financial choices, both big and small. This mental drain may cause a decrease in reasoning or willpower which can cause impulsive decisions or spending. These impulsive choices can hurt your budget.

Here are some things you can do to help combat decision fatigue and keep it from impacting your finances in the process.

Tips For Combating Decision Fatigue and Protecting Your Finances

  • Build space for daydreaming. Einstein came up with the theory of relativity while he was daydreaming about sunbeams, not in a classroom or office. Think about pleasant things.
  • Limit the decisions you MUST make each day. Consider automating ongoing or repetitive tasks if possible. For instance, consider using bill-pay to remove decisions about when and how to pay household bills. Automating as many decisions as possible will help you save your mental energy for when you need it most.
  • While indoors, build muscle memory with something different. Do stretching or yoga, work on a puzzle, paint, draw, do calligraphy, garden.
  • Establish healthy routines. Doing daily tasks at the same time and in the same order can help your mind relax. Your morning and night-time routines can be especially soothing when a day has been packed with mentally taxing decisions. It may be helpful to incorporate a brief review of your spending into your nighttime routine. Consider taking a moment or two to review your spending from the day. Are there any unnecessary, repeating patterns that may be impacting your budget? 
  • If you recognize that you’re experiencing decision fatigue…STOP…and don’t make any important financial decisions. Scam artists, TV pitchmen and social media ads usually hawk their wares at night, when people’s resistance is low.  Beware.
  • Building a budget can save you from decision fatigue. If you’ve already decided ahead of time what you can afford to spend on a budget category, it’s easier to handle an impulse in the moment.
  • It’s normal to feel depleted after a busy day or week, or even after an activity that requires a lot of focus and decisions. When we find ourselves facing a lot of mental stress, it can be especially important to practice self-care that will allow us to make healthy emotional, physical and financial decisions.

“Daydreaming heals the heart, soothes the soul and strengthens the imagination.”

-Richelle E. Goodrich

Consumer Education Services, Inc. (CESI) is a non-profit committed to empowering and inspiring consumers nationwide to make wise financial decisions and live debt free. Speak with a certified counselor for a free debt analysis today.


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