Autumn is upon us. It’s the season of falling leaves, cooling air, waning daylight — and Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte. Each year, the beloved fall beverage sends the world aflutter, generating more excitement than perhaps any combination of red, yellow, and orange leaves seen soaring through the sky.
But before you head to the nearest Starbucks for that signature pumpkin-spiced concoction, consider this arithmetic: a “Tall” (12-ounce) PSL generally costs around $4.25, depending on what city you live in. A “Grande” (16-ounce) drink will put you back $4.95, while a “Venti” (16-ounce) sells for $5.25.
So, if you were to purchase three Pumpkin Spice Lattes per week throughout all of fall (a total of 13 weeks, starting September 22 and ending December 21), you would spend a total of $193. That’s $193 that could be spent on groceries, entertainment, a new pair of winter boots — you name it.
Considering this long view of the Pumpkin Spice Latte, ask yourself: is it worth it?
This is the kind of question put forth by Dan Ariely, the behavioral economist, bestselling author, and Duke University professor whose studies of human behavior have helped clarify much of the (largely irrational) inner workings of our (supposedly rational) everyday decisions.
Ariely’s upcoming work, Dollars and Sense: How We Misthink Money and How to Spend Smarter, tackles the psychology behind financial decision making. Among the questions he explores are: Why are we comfortable overpaying for something now just because we’ve overpaid for it before? Why does paying for things often feel like it causes physical pain?
We couldn’t wait until the publication of Ariely’s new book to hear his answers to these questions, so we invited him to host an IVY Ideas Night in New York City (11/8) and Los Angeles (11/13). In the meantime, start saving money with three tips on how to spend smarter every day, drawing on insights from Ariely’s writing and research.
Pay Attention to the Purchases You Regret
Navigating your finances is never easy. Seemingly everybody is susceptible to the psychological pressures of inherently irrational behavior, which makes it tough to consistently keep spending down and savings up.
Nonetheless, there are strategies to help you make better decisions with your money. One technique, as seen in the Millennial Regret Spending Report reported by Common Cents Lab (a financial research lab at Duke led by Ariely), is to focus on the purchases you regret.
Just as you may wake up with regret for those three slices of pepperoni pizza you ate the night before — and, over time, learn to cut out unhealthy midnight snacks — so too can paying attention to the purchases you regret systematically change your patterns of behavior.
Next time an unexpected package arrives on your doorstep, for example, take note of any money-related feeling of regret you may have. Use this as a learning opportunity to begin reining in any unnecessary (perhaps, wine-fueled) Amazon purchases in the future — a first step in improving your personal financial management.
Spend on Others
In contrast to financial regret, you can maintain a healthier relationship with your finances by gravitating toward purchases that are deeply satisfying. The Millennial Regret Spending Report shows that people feel most satisfied with purchases made in December: i.e., right around the holiday season.
The takeaway? Money you put towards the benefit of others can leave you with a deep sense of satisfaction. This ultimately fosters a happier and healthier approach to your money — a good way to start spending smarter and more consciously day to day.
Money Is Time
Our pumpkin-spice-infused thought experiment from above demonstrates how to think of all purchases as trade-offs: “if I buy more of X, I’ll be forced to buy less of Y.”
Another way to think about this financial trade-off is in terms of time. For instance, you can think of the $193 you spend on Pumpkin Spice Lattes as hours you have to work in order to afford those beverages. Depending on your line of work, this could add up to a lot of hours. At New York City’s current minimum wage ($11), this would amount to over 17 hours of work.
What else could you do with that time? Read a book, enjoy a day in the park, spend time with your family? By thinking of money spent as time wasted (or conserved), you can approach your finances from a new perspective and begin to clarify and prioritize your goals.