Fuzzy Math: What Constitutes a ‘Deal’?

Imagine you’re in a store thinking about buying a calculator that normally sells for $15 when a salesperson informs you the company’s other store, located 20 minutes away, has the same calculator available with a $5 discount. Would you make the drive? Now imagine the same situation with one exception: the calculator you’re considering normally sells for $125. Now would you drive across town to save $5?

Some 35 years ago, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, pioneers in the field of behavioral economics, set up that very experiment with about 200 shoppers. The result? Nearly 70% of people were willing to drive across town to save $5 when the full retail price was $15, whereas just 29% were willing to make that effort when the price was $125.

That’s completely irrational, right? In both situations, there was an opportunity to save $5. And yet numerous studies since then have confirmed their findings: people tend to value a high percentage-off deal on a low-cost item more highly than a deal on a more expensive item where the actual dollar savings might be just as valuable or even more valuable.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I confirmed that finding myself recently when shopping for a gift.

Before heading out for a quick shopping trip on my lunch hour, I received a coupon for $2 off a greeting card. I was happy to get that coupon since I was already planning to go to that particular store to buy a birthday card that I figured would cost $4. Great, 50% off!

However, my first stop was at a different store to buy the gift. For some reason, I didn’t even think to look for a coupon. It was only when I got back to my office that I realized I should have searched for a discount. To satisfy my curiosity, I did a quick search and found a coupon for $3.50 off. At first, I was mad at myself. Why didn’t I look for a coupon before I went to the store? But my next thought was that saving $3.50 on a $50 purchase wasn’t a very big deal.

Think about that. I was happy to get a $2 coupon for a $4 item, but I easily dismissed a coupon worth even more because it amounted to a far smaller percentage of the purchase price.

Again, completely irrational. And I write about money for a living!

I’ll give myself a little bit of credit, though, for how I bought a car a few years ago. I found a low-mileage two-year old car, researched what it was worth, and struck what seemed like a fair deal with the salesperson. At the end of our negotiation, I also asked for a full tank of gas, which he agreed to. But when I picked up the car a few days later, the tank was just half full.

I was tempted to let it go. Twenty dollars seemed so minor compared to the $18,000 I was paying for the car. Even though I felt a little embarrassed about it, I asked him to honor our deal and he agreed to top off the tank.

For many of us, it’s tempting to dismiss the opportunity to save $20 on an $18,000 purchase or $3.50 on a $50 purchase because the savings amounts to such a small percentage of the purchase price. But we would never miss the opportunity to save the same dollar amount when the savings amounts to a higher percentage of the price.

The solution? Change the way you frame the opportunity. Don’t always think in terms of percentages. Think about the absolute dollar amount, and how happy you’d be to save that much on an item that costs much less.

What are some other examples that come to your mind—perhaps situations you’ve experienced yourself—where saving a large percentage on an inexpensive item seemed more worthwhile than saving a much smaller percentage (but the same or even larger absolute amount) on a more expensive item?


One Response to Fuzzy Math: What Constitutes a ‘Deal’?

  1. Kathryn Arnold May 3, 2022 at 1:49 PM #

    The value of a deal often depends on whether you can afford to care or not care.

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