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Are You Suffering From Financial Decision Fatigue? 

Illustration by mbg Creative
June 5, 2019
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We know decision fatigue is an issue: Essentially it's what happens when we are faced with too many choices, either over a period of time or all at once. And as studies have shown, when we are overwhelmed, we are unable to think through our decisions, and often act irrationally or impulsively.

And it might be affecting how we deal with money, according to financial therapist Amanda Clayman, who acts as a financial wellness advocate for Prudential Financial. By stressing over all the little choices we make over money (say, like spending the extra $1 on guacamole), we're actually exhausting ourselves in the long run. "We really underestimate just how much energy it takes to make decisions," she says. And this burnout can lead us to feeling anxious about the decisions we do have to make.

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"The reality is many people just simply react to their financial issues or the questions that are presented to them; there is no plan, and they're not necessarily making informed, rational choices," says financial coach Lynne Somerman.

And fixing it, they say, just takes a bit of forethought. Essentially: Make fewer, but smarter, choices.

Get in the habit of "front-loading."

What does this mean exactly? It's actually quite a simple concept: Every month or week, create a framework of how much you are comfortable spending—and on what. That last part is key as it will help ease decision making later. "I am a big believer that we need to dedicate time and attendance to money because what you spend your money on helps inform your life," says Clayman. "The more you are consciously spending your money, the more you are in touch with what gives your life value. Use this as a way to create more meaning in your financial life."

Take, for example, stressing over the price of a workout class. I attend a reasonably priced yoga studio, and yet, every time I book a class I stress just ever-so-slightly about spending that money (Shouldn't I be putting more into savings? I think.) Well, according to Clayman, my semiregular panic about my savings account is a waste of energy. I know that yoga is good for me and my mental health. And I know that I'm happiest when I am able to take a class a few times a week. So every month, I should allocate a certain amount of money to yoga, knowing that I will take it two to three times a week. Then, when I book each class, I don't need to stress out.

Yes, this is essentially just smart budgeting, but the difference is making that mental shift away from day-to-day decisions about spending money to larger, more meta-decisions: Decide what is important to you upfront, and you won't worry about it later.

This trick also helps in the opposite direction: It will help you say no to things that you might be mindlessly spending your money on that you really don't need—or even want. "Say you find yourself eating out too many times per week, and you realize you are spending too much money on it," says Clayman. "If you decide that you can only go out once per week at the beginning of the month, that one dinner becomes more meaningful. You realize you have your agency in your decision making—rather than just thinking these are happening to you."

Automate when possible.

"I am a pretty big advocate of getting close with your money. Understanding where it's going and understanding your situation," says Somerman. "But that's just for things that need decisions. And not everything needs a decision."

Your cellphone bill, electric bill, or rent? Doesn't need a decision, says Somerman. "It is what it is, and you have to pay it," she says. "There is no reason not to automate things like bills because there's no decision there or value added to sitting down every month to write a check."

Essentially, you should save your financial mental space for things that you have control over and you can affect, like how much you spend on holidays or vacations.

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But don't avoid decisions either.

We should be clear: Limiting your decision making does not equal putting it off entirely. So, of course you need to be self-aware about the choices you are making, and also the decisions you are not. "There's a lot of emotional baggage and junk that comes along with financial decisions, so we end up just ignoring it or make choices that don't take everything into account because we are trying to avoid something," says Somerman.

And then, says Somerman, when you are forced to make a decision, it might not be the best one for you. "Eventually you'll put things off enough, and then when you have to make a decision, you are reacting—you probably think, I don't know if this right decision but I need to make some decision," she says.

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Alexandra Engler
Alexandra Engler
mbg Beauty Director

Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and In her current role, she covers all the latest trends in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as lifestyle topics, such as travel. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.