Although we might not notice we’re doing it, adults make about 35,000 decisions a day.1And as those decisions pile up, they can affect our happiness—and wallet.
Take, for example, the first few minutes of your day. When your alarm goes off, do you hit snooze or get up right away?
You decide you’d better not snooze today, so you get out of bed.
Do you head to the coffee pot or let the dog out first?
You choose coffee, but will you wash your favorite mug or use the chipped blue one that’s already clean?
With your favorite mug in hand, you open the back door for the dog. Should you go out with him and throw his toy for a bit, or bring him back in so you can get in the shower?
And once you’re in the shower, will you opt to shampoo today or can you just get away with a quick rinse?
Oh, and what about the kids? Or your partner who struggles with making breakfast? Or that anxious colleague who has the nerve to text you before work? In addition to all those decisions for yourself, you could be making decisions for others, too.
The problem is that the more decisions we have to make, the more tired our brains get—and that can leave us feeling tired, foggy, and irritable.
More complex decisions can drain us faster, but even small everyday choices add up, leading us to a condition psychologists refer to as decision fatigue. Once we’ve reached this stage, our ability to make good decisions deteriorates, and we tend to react with impulsivity.
Since making decisions affects all aspects of our lives and well-being, decision fatigue can increase your likelihood of making poor moves with your money, too. Luckily, there are some practical tips that can help you avoid and overcome symptoms of decision fatigue.
How decision fatigue can affect our money (and vice versa)
“Decision fatigue is a real psychological phenomenon,” says Brian Ford, head of financial wellness at Truist. “Money is one of the biggest manifestations of decision fatigue because it’s such an integral part of our lives.”
Once we’ve reached our limit, we can enter “Who cares?” territory and make not-so-great life choices.
Truist happiness guru Bright Dickson adds, “Decision fatigue is the cognitive load that we suffer from having to make cost-benefit analyses so often, and the cognitive toll that takes.”
She says decision fatigue comes not just from the number of decisions we make in a day—but also from the weight of those decisions and how supported we feel in them.
Those money decisions we make can carry a lot of weight: “Money is so attached to our relationships, our health,” says Ford. “We work eight hours a day trying to earn that money and then have to decide what to do with it.”
As a quick example, one place decision fatigue can rear its head is at the grocery store. After making decisions on which store to go to, what brands to buy, and whether to get your favorite juice or the one that’s on sale, it can be harder to resist those impulse items near the cashier by the time you’ve reached the checkout line. Your decision fatigue contributes to you putting those candy bars in your cart. (But if buying a candy bar will really bring you some joy, don’t feel guilty about it.)
So what do we do to resist these temptations? And is there a way to avoid feeling the effects of decision fatigue altogether?
Try keeping it simple to overcome fatigue and make better decisions
“Any time we can make fewer decisions and keep things simple, the better. That’s at the heart of overcoming decision fatigue,” says Ford.
Here are some tips for doing just that—along with specifics for making better money decisions:
- Know yourself. Ford says taking the time to know what kind of spender, saver, and investor you are results in having to make fewer decisions. Decide what your money personality is and what goals matter most to you—and make choices from that place. “These are big concrete decisions about yourself. Once you know them, you’ll have fewer decisions to make,” says Ford. “If you can decide, ‘I’m not an impulse spender. I am a saver by nature,’ well, you just wiped out 10 decisions that day.”
- Delegate. “Defer decisions out to who you can, when you can,” says Dickson. “Give that responsibility to others as appropriate.” This is easier said than done for some, but it’s a challenge worth accepting. “There are situations in which we feel we have to make all the decisions and we actually don’t,” Dickson says. For example, it’s not necessarily true that you’re the only one who can correctly decide which landscaper to hire or where to order lunch. “Just because someone would do something different from how we would do it doesn’t make it wrong,” she notes, “it just makes it different.”
- Automate your decisions. Setting your bills, investments, and savings to be automatically taken from your checking account or paycheck removes a lot of decisions you’d otherwise have to make with your money on a regular basis. Your retirement investments, emergency savings, and most monthly bill payments can be set up to run automatically in the background of your life so you don’t have to think about where that money’s going. (Speaking of, are there other things in your life you could potentially automate?)
- Narrow things down. Giving yourself fewer accounts to manage or ways to spend is another way to reduce decision fatigue. “Get it down to one credit card or debit card. Have only one checking account,” says Ford. Funneling your purchases through one place means you only have to check on where your money is once. “Worrying about every penny, and five or six different accounts that you’re having to track down, is just too much for most of us. You want to simplify things as much as possible,” he says. (Before closing an old credit account or opening a new one, make sure you know how it could affect your credit score!)
- Remember to HALT. The adage that you should not make decisions when you’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired (HALT) has stuck around for a reason: It’s true. Decision fatigue is compounded when we’re not feeling great. Try to take note of when you’re on an upswing. When you’re feeling energetic and happy, that’s the time to make decisions about how much to put in your 401(k). And when your energy is low, it’s not the time to agree to sign up for that store credit card for an additional 15% off that impulse purchase.
These techniques to help with decision fatigue will take some practice, but they’re worthwhile. And in those moments when you notice you’ve become tired, irritable, and just can’t handle making another decision, “Have a lot of compassion for yourself,” says Dickson. “For many people who get into decision fatigue, it’s because they’re extremely responsible and conscientious people. That’s the shadow side of that strength. So be really nice to yourself about it when it happens.”