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Paradox Of Financial Choices: Maximizing vs. Satisficing

In the book Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, he talks about how there are two types of people, maximizers and satisficers (think satisfy + suffice). I will simply quote the excellent summary from the book’s Wikipedia page:

A maximizer is like a perfectionist, someone who needs to be assured that their every purchase or decision was the best that could be made. The way a maximizer knows for certain is to consider all the alternatives they can imagine. This creates a psychologically daunting task, which can become even more daunting as the number of options increases. The alternative to maximizing is to be a satisficer. A satisficer has criteria and standards, but a satisficer is not worried about the possibility that there might be something better. Ultimately, Schwartz agrees with Simon’s conclusion, that satisficing is, in fact, the maximizing strategy.

If you can’t tell already after 10 seconds of reading this site, I am a hardcore maximizer. I love collecting data, poring over alternatives, finding out secret exceptions, all so I can choose the “best” choice. I prefer the term “good enough-er” to satisficer. For some people, the second it reaches the “good enough” stage, they are done and move on.

A Pathetic Maximizer Story
This happened just last week. A friend of mine comes over, and brings some McDonald’s with him. After he leaves, I go to throw out the garbage but notice an unpeeled Monopoly game piece. I peel it out of curiosity, but I get no instant-win and two random streets (St. James Place and Atlantic Avenue). But wait… I vaguely know that one of the rules of the game is that if you collect all the streets of a neighborhood (same color), you win a cash prize. However, some streets are given out all the time, while others are very rare. What if I had one of the rare pieces?

Of course, I then had to fire up the computer and search for the rare pieces. Lo and behold, Wikipedia also has a list of all the rare pieces. For example, Ventnor Avenue is also yellow like Atlantic, but is always the “missing” piece and thus essentially worth $25,000 by itself. My pieces were of course worthless. But I still had to know.

Maximizing and Investing
I began to think about how this relates to personal finance. In investing, you’d obviously like to maximize your returns. However, it is very difficult to know in advance which stock or mutual fund will outperform the rest. You could read books, financial statements, interview executives, or watch CNBC all day. You could listen to Warren Buffett’s every bowel movement and dissect all his annual shareholder letters for hints and tips.

Or if you’re like me, you may decide that even though the market isn’t perfectly efficient, it is still very efficient especially when costs like mutual fund fees, trade commissions, and tax considerations are taken into account. I now invest passively, and agree to be “satisficed” with the returns of the world markets minus costs. But even here, I am trying to maximize my returns by minimizing costs by buying Vanguard index funds or similar ETFs so that my portfolio costs less than 0.20% of assets annually.

Better to Satisfice?
The things I could maximize financially go on and on. From bank interest rates to cell phone plans, credit card reward structures to auto insurance premiums. Would I be happier if I just picked something “good enough” and moved on? Perhaps it is you readers that are the smartest, letting us slightly kooky bloggers do all the research for you, and then just picking what is good enough for you! ;)

Where maximizing hurts most is when it stops you from taking action. It doesn’t matter if your interest rate is 1.8% vs. 1.85% when your money is still stuck in a 0% checking account at some megabank. It doesn’t matter if you get the optimal 401k asset allocation if you’re not even contributing the most you can to the plan. For me, I have been putting off fixing up my house and adding solar hot water for several months because I want to find the “best” contractor. Meanwhile, I’m still using too much electricity and the tax breaks may expire.

Are there some things where you maximize, and others where you satisfice?

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