Dollars and Sense: Book Review and Giveaway

Most personal finance literature focuses on the numbers. How much you need to save, where to find the best deals, which investments earn the highest return, why you should pay off your high interest debt first. But there’s a growing body of work exploring our financial behaviour and why certain decisions about money are made with our emotions rather than our heads.

At the forefront of that research is Duke University professor Dan Ariely, best-selling author of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions.

Dollars and Sense: Book Review

Dollars and Sense: How We Misthink Money and How to Spend Smarter

Dan has teamed up with comedian Jeff Kreisler to write a new book about money called Dollars and Sense: How We Misthink Money and How to Spend Smarter. It’s a fascinating take on how we think about money, what makes us happy (or miserable) when we spend it, and how we can change our decision-making for the better.

Part one explains some of the psychological mistakes we make with money and how businesses such as casinos have perfected the art of separating us from our money. You’ll learn about mental accounting, or how we feel differently about two types of spending; the price of free, where free items like parking or drinks cost us in other unexpected ways; and relativity, where we can drive out of our way to save a few pennies per litre on gas, but won’t go across town to save $20 on a winter jacket.

Part two looks at how we assess value in ways that have little to do with value. The authors share the story of when, in 2012, new JCPenney CEO Ron Johnson scrapped the retailer’s traditional, yet slightly deceptive practice of marking products up and then marking them back down as a bargain deal. In the name of transparency, JCPenney would now offer fair and square pricing with no coupons, sales, or bargaining.

Customers revolted. They preferred the old way with sales and discounts. It made them feel like they were getting a more value with a perceived deal, even though prices were relatively the same either way. Within a year, JCPenney lost $985 million and Johnson was out of a job.

Then there’s the example at a car dealership when we get offered add-ons such as rust-proofing, fabric protection, DVD players, or, ahem, even sunroofs.

“Car dealers – perhaps the most devious group of amateur psychologists this side of mattress salesmen – know that when we’re spending $25,000, additional purchases, like a $200 CD changer, seem cheap, even inconsequential. Would we ever buy a $200 CD changer? Does anyone even listen to CDs anymore? No and no. But at just 0.8 percent of the total purchase price, we hardly shrug.”

The Pain of Paying

The most interesting psychological concept, to me, was the pain of paying, which Dan and Jeff explore throughout Dollars and Sense.

Studies show that we’re willing to spend more when we pay by credit card instead of cash. If you don’t think that’s true, the next time you go out to a restaurant leave your credit cards at home and just bring cash.

The pain of paying is the idea that we experience some version of mental pain when we pay for things. It’s the result of two distinct factors:

  1. The gap between the time when our money leaves our wallet and the time we consume the good for which we’ve paid.
  2. The attention we give to the payment itself.

The formula is: Pain of paying = Time + Attention.

We can avoid the pain by increasing the amount of time between payment and consumption. That’s why saving up and paying for a vacation in advance can make a trip more enjoyable then if you pay as you go, or worse, are faced with a hefty credit card bill at the end of your holiday.

Here’s Dan Ariely speaking with CBC’s On The Money host Peter Armstrong about why we spend so much:

So How Should We Think About Money?

In Dollars and Sense, Dan says we can’t simply ‘fix’ our brains and automatically make better financial choices every time. Our primitive lizard brain is hard-wired to make irrational decisions. That’s why the first 200 pages of this book focus on all the head-scratching money moves we make – and why we make them – while only the last 40 pages deal with how to avoid those bad decisions and make better spending choices in the future.

The point of the book isn’t to make you question every financial decision, always, in every way possible. That would be psychologically overwhelming. Pick your spots and question those things that are most likely to cause long-term financial harm.

“There’s a reason why we’ve decided to show you why we make foolish money decisions, rather than telling you what to do in any situation. For one, we just don’t know what is the right thing to do in every situation. No one knows. But we also don’t want to give you fish; we want to show you how you’ve been fishing so you may approach future fishing in a better way, if you so choose.”

Some ways we can stop and think differently about the way we approach money is to:

  • Recognize opportunity costs – Consider what we’re sacrificing for what we’re getting
  • Remember everything is relative – Buying a $60 shirt marked down from $100 isn’t “saving $40”; it is “spending $60.”
  • Don’t compartmentalize – Pause, think, and remind yourself that money is fungible. Every dollar is the same. Your money.
  • Feel “some” pain when you spend – It won’t be long before blinking in a certain way will be a payment option. Don’t sign up for that.
  • Don’t trust your gut – Stop and question your long-term habits, whether that latte is worth $4 to you, or if a cable bundle is worth $140 per month.
  • Don’t overvalue what you own or what you might lose – Sunk costs cannot be recovered. If an amount is spent, it’s spent. When making financial decisions, consider only where you are now and where you will be in the future.

In general, though, when you don’t have any specific idea of an item’s value, do some research. Go online, investigate, ask around. Not for every day decisions like the price of chewing gum, but you should probably dig around for a few hours before going to a car dealership.

Final Thoughts

Dan Ariely is a behavioural economist who has done some incredible research about the human mind and how we make decisions. He doesn’t offer finger-wagging rules for us to follow, or chastise our bad choices. Instead he shows us why we make irrational decisions and how, with a little more thought, we can overcome our own emotions and the psychological tricks others use to separate us from our money.

In his latest book, Dollars and Sense, Dan trades on-and-off with financial comedian (is that really a thing?) Jeff Kreisler to deliver quite possibly the most entertaining and insightful personal finance book I’ve ever read.

Dollars and Sense is financial literacy at its finest. It aims to educate readers to be aware of their own cognitive limitations, design personal systems to correct themselves, and take control of their financial decisions. If you don’t learn something about yourself and how even the most sophisticated consumer can fall victim to his or her own mental mistakes, then congratulations – you’re a robot!

Time for a Giveaway!

The book publisher, HarperCollins, was kind enough to send us a copy of Dollars and Sense to give away on the blog. To enter, simply leave a comment below and tell us about one of your own irrational spending habits.

Do you carry credit card debt, yet also have money set aside in a savings account? Do you spend $7 on a greeting card at a grocery store when you could get one for $1 at the Dollar Store? Do you drive all over town to save a few bucks on groceries or gas, yet fail to put the same effort into negotiating your car loan or mortgage?

We’ll pick one entry and announce the winner in the next edition of weekend reading. Good luck!

Weekend Reading: Exploding Sunroof Update Edition

Long-time readers might recall last summer when the panoramic sunroof in our 2013 Hyundai Sante Fe spontaneously shattered while my wife and I were driving on the highway towards Lethbridge. I filed a complaint with Transport Canada, and after searching online and finding multiple instances of exploding sunroofs, wondered why a recall hadn’t been ordered.

A recent Global News investigation found a spike in these incidents, with 110 recorded complaints in 2016 and 103 already in 2017. The biggest culprit, you guessed it, was the Hyundai Sante Fe with 37 of those complaints.

Hyundai Exploding Sunroof

I had been in contact with a Calgary law firm after the incident and I’m now the lead plaintiff in a proposed class action suit against Hyundai Canada. Transport Canada is also currently pursuing a defect investigation into shattering sunroofs in the 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport model.

A similar exploding sunroof lawsuit was launched against Hyundai Motor America back in December 2015.

This Week’s Recap:

On Monday I wrote about mental accounting and how we spend money.

On Wednesday Marie shared five RRSP strategies beyond basic contributions.

Tune in next week for a new book review and giveaway, plus a look at different ways for investors to get their international diversification.

Earn Cash Back From Great Canadian Rebates:

With Black Friday around the corner those looking to get a head-start on their holiday shopping should sign-up for Great Canadian Rebates – an online shopping website that pays you cash back rebates on your online purchases. I’ve been a member for years and have earned hundreds of dollars in cash back rewards.

For example, if you shop at, simply visit Great Canadian Rebates first and you can earn 2.75% cash back.

Weekend Reading:

CBC Marketplace hidden cameras catch car dealerships breaking sales rules:

Marketplace’s hidden camera footage shows the initial sales pitch at seven of the ten dealerships focused on seven-year loans, despite the fact the customer didn’t ask for long-term financing. Even more troubling was that half of the dealerships encouraged early trade-ins.


One salesperson told the customer, “You’re not going to pay anything out of pocket.” Another said, “We pay off the loan,” and a third, the manager of the dealership, promised: “You’re not losing in any way” on an early trade-in.


The reality is the customer can either pay off the remaining debt on a trade-in or add it to the loan for their next car.

A cool New York Times feature looks at what will happen when 100% of cars are autonomous.

Last week it was announced that Shoppers Optimum and PC Points were merging into one loyalty program. Here’s why companies keep messing with your points.

This Business Insider author took a neuroscientist’s advice for saving money, and it’s transformed his finances.

Global News crunches the numbers on how much a week’s worth of groceries costs in Canada.

Canadians paid out $100 million last year for going over their internet data limit. That, plus other fascinating facts about Canada’s $66.6B telecom industry.

Capital One has pulled the plug on its popular Aspire Travel World Elite MasterCard, closing the card to new applicants.

Manufactured spending. That’s how a university student racked up travel rewards points for free.

Personal finance author Rubina Ahmed-Haq reveals the biggest money mistakes you can make at every age.

Index providers plan to overhaul their industry classifications, meaning internet and media stocks like Amazon, Facebook, Alphabet, and Netflix will be pulled out of ‘technology’ and ‘consumer discretionary’ categories and merged with phone companies into a new group called “communication services.”

Justin Bender explains why zero-fee ETF purchases, such as the ones offered at low-cost brokerage Questrade, can come with strings attached.

Michael James looks at the dividend puzzle – the strong preference many investors have for dividends over capital gains.

About 64 per cent of people think the CPP will be out of money, or won’t exist by the time they retire. Here’s why there’s no reason to fear CPP’s stability.

My Own Advisor Mark Seed interviews pension expert Doug Runchey about when to take your Canada Pension Plan benefits.

Mark also explores a topic of great interest to me: should I draw down my RRSP before taking my pension?

Who gets what is more complicated than many of us realize. Here’s how to write a will that’s actually fair.

Finally, Canadians have been using their homes as piggy banks. Here’s how Canadian homes became debt traps.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

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