The Money Illusion and the Big Power of Small Changes

“A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore” — Yogi Berra

Odds are, you’re now familiar with the Parable of the Boiling Frog. A story that posits that a frog dropped in boiling water will hop right out of the pot, but that one placed in tepid water that is gradually raised to boiling will meet its demise. The absolute veracity of this metaphor is questionable, but the illustrative quality of the narrative is beyond reproach. The fact is, slow, incremental change can be damaging to us in profound ways. The imperceptibility of these changes leaves us helpless to react, and we only become aware of what’s happening once it is too late.

Sadly, there is a “boiling frog” dynamic at play in the way you think about money, something behavioral economists call the “money illusion.” As best described by Shafir, Diamond and Tversky, the money illusion “refers to a tendency to think in terms of nominal rather than real monetary values.”

In a nutshell, we think of numbers in a way that is disconnected from their purchasing power, and in so doing can make irrational personal financial decisions. Consider the ways in which a six figure salary or being a millionaire are still considered useful shorthand for wealth. While these may have been meaningful distinctions in say, the ’70s and even eye-popping in the ’20s, they simply don’t mean what they used to as a result of inflation and decreased purchasing power. The fact is that going forward, multimillionaire status will be required of even middle-class Americans who want to retire with peace of mind.

Inflation creep is slow and insidious, just like the proverbial boiling water, and just like the water, it can have lasting detrimental effects. Consider Yale professor Robert Shiller’s comments on the money illusion as we mentally account for our housing purchases,

“Since people are likely to remember the price they paid for their house from many years ago, but remember few other prices from then, they have the mistaken impression that home prices have gone up more than other prices, giving a mistakenly exaggerated impression of the investment potential of houses.”

Thus, people may overextend themselves to get into an expensive house, hoping for a large nominal return over the years, never realizing that the numbers they are looking at may not even be keeping up with inflation.

While getting in over your head on a home represents excessively risky behavior precipitated by the money illusion, it can just as soon lead to inappropriate risk aversion. Consider the “flight to safety” that occurs during most economic downturns. Investors flood into treasuries, which may not even keep up with inflation, while ignoring equities, which are at their greatest value in years. Truly conceptualized, nothing could be less safe than putting your assets in a class that minimizes purchasing power. By conceptualizing assets in nominal terms instead of “real dollars,” investors irrationally lock in an absolute loss in their efforts to protect against a nominal one.

Financial professional can help their clients understand purchasing power in a way that is aligned with their individual desires and aspirations. Advisers should emphasize that investors can be lured into focusing on illusory numbers that have little impact on their ability to meet their own needs. Because as we’ve seen, incremental negative changes can be as bad for your financial future as they are for a frog’s health.