It's a simple idea that goes like this: Financial transactions in which you actually see the money dwindling cause more mental distress than those in which you don't. The pain of paying increases financial awareness and tends to curtail spending.
Looking for something to do this weekend? Find what you need in our Weekend Entertainment Guide newsletter.
A case in point — you might have a monthly fee deducted from your bank account for a gym membership, even if you never go. It happens because there is minimal awareness of it or little pain of paying.
On the other hand, if you had to physically walk into the gym where you never work out and pay with cash from your wallet each month, the pain of paying would likely cause you to rethink the membership.
The expenditure that's got me feeling the pain is a little more complex. It's not an extra or a luxury. It's filling my tank with gasoline.
As prices have crept up to $4 per gallon, my anxiety level has crept up proportionally when I roll up to the pump. Apparently, I am not alone in this, as stories of price shock and consumer panic abound.
I am aware that most people living in the United States with an average income are wealthy compared to the rest of the world. I can't help but feel a little shallow and unreasonable when I get butterflies in my stomach — an actual physical reaction — from buying gas.
As I've explored the issue, I've come across a few points that might account for the response.
You can't miss the price. Unlike grocery stores and department stores with their many distractions, gas is sold at retail outlets dedicated mainly to sell gas. The price of the starring product is displayed high in large numbers for all to see.
The meter rolls. If a truck stopped by to fill our tanks with gas while we slept then sent us a monthly bill, we probably would sweat the price a lot less. But when we go to the station, we watch the numbers rise penny by penny. Imagine displaying a rolling price-per-unit meter in your home for every gallon of water you use. Or going to a restaurant where a waiter stood by tallying the cost of every bite.
We buy multiple gallons of gas at a time. If I had to buy 15 tubes of toothpaste a couple times a week for a few dollars each, the cost would surely strike me more than it does buying one at a time.
So, you say, these factors might make the hit seem worse than it is, but it is a hit nonetheless.
True. However, figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Energy Information Administration show that a temporary jump at the pump only makes a small dent in a family's annual expenses. And the price per barrel of oil already has begun to decline following the most recent spike. Gas prices are expected to gradually decline through the summer.
I can't say whether I'll have physiological symptoms from the pain of paying the next time I buy gas. My hope is that understanding the factors and having a rational perspective might help keep the butterflies at bay.
Alicia Notarianni is a reporter and feature writer for The Herald-Mail. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.