Many years ago I went to an office Christmas party at the then brand new Grand West casino. Not quite the Bellagio I had dressed up for, but the company generously bankrolled each of us with R500 worth of chips, so I gleefully sidled over to the nearest blackjack table, and pretended to know what I was doing.
As (beginner’s) luck would have it, I was up R3k within the hour. I was tempted to take my newfound riches and run. But I stayed. And I lost. More than half. Defeated by lady luck, my professional gambling career thwarted, I blew the leftovers on fancy umbrella’d drinks. That was my first (and last) gambling experience. A bitter-sweet victory. At least I didn’t spend my own money. And at least I didn’t lose any *real* money, right? Comforting thought. But wait. How was the R3k I had 30 minutes ago not real money? How is it any different from the R3k savings that I am trying to grow for my trip to Spain? Do ill-gotten gains not count? And what about the R500 I started with – are gifts also not real money?
This reminds me of a story about the farmers of the Luo tribe of Kenya who have a peculiar relationship with money. They label certain money as “bitter” to differentiate where the income originated and how it can be spent. “Bitter” money must be ritually purified before it can be spent or the purchase will lead to disappointment or loss.
Maybe that sounds foreign, but we also see money differently based on where it came from. These crazy mental gymnastics we put ourselves through to rationalise our spending is one of the most common decision-making biases. It’s called “mental accounting”. And casinos are not the only ones that benefit from it.
Many of us are expecting a tax refund in a few weeks. Some of us (ahem – me) even intentionally overpay SARS to guarantee a refund. Just in time for Christmas. An early bonus. But a tax refund isn’t a bonus – it’s income that we earned – income that we could have saved and earned interest on.
Are we giving SARS an interest-free loan simply because we lack the willpower to save? Sounds ridiculous. But it’s what I’ve been doing pretty much since I started working. So this year I am going to try something different. Instead of blowing the gift refund, I am going to spend half on me now and save half for future me.
They say that money won is twice as sweet as money earned, but I actually think it’s the other way around. Money won or gained through sudden windfall is easier and more tempting to spend. Whereas money earned is spent more carefully, more considered. And I should know. If I had saved just half of my tax refunds for the past 2 years, I would be writing this from Barcelona while sipping on Sangria.