The Politeness Tax

The other day, I ordered a small pizza for lunch. The delivery guy showed up, sweating from the summer sun, and told me my total was $10. I had a twenty-dollar bill on me. As I handed it over to the exhausted, out-of-breath pizza guy, I felt bad asking for change. So, against my better judgment, I gave him the entire twenty.  A 100 percent tip.

You’re thinking it, and I’ll be the first person to say it—that was stupid.

Sure, I wanted to be nice—it’s nice to be nice. But I had also just voluntarily paid double for something. And I’m in no financial position to pay double for things.

I vowed that my “politeness spending” had to end.

But first—how much have I been spending on being too nice—on avoiding confrontation or making financial decisions based on guilt? Here’s a look back on the past week.

Not Correcting the Sales Clerk–$2.00
As a kid, the worst thing that could happen during a shopping trip with my mom was the sales clerk wrongly ringing up her item. Oh man, the memories still haunt me. We could be late for an appointment, holding up a line—she didn’t care. She was going to get her twenty cents off those grapes.

Not to blame Mom, but I think that’s part of the reason I always shy away from correcting the sales clerks—even when they’re wrong. Part of me still remembers that twinge of dull despair in their eyes as Mom Wong asked to talk to a manager. I feel bad.

So the other day, when the sales associate at Bed, Bath & Beyond rang up my item for $2.00 more than it was marked, I didn’t say anything. There was no one behind me in line; he wasn’t terribly intimidating. I just didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it; I wanted to be polite.

That cost me two dollars.

Paying for a Friend’s Troubles–$10.00
I invited a friend out for happy hour the other night. I hadn’t seen her in a while, so I thought it would be nice to grab some drinks and catch up. When she got there, she complained about the awfulness of sitting in LA traffic after a rough day at the office. Nothing new. But when the check came, I made sure to pick it up because I felt bad. Since I invited her out, it was obviously my fault she had a rough evening. Silly, I know, and she even asked, “Are you sure?” “Yep,” I insisted. It was a nice gesture, sure. It also cost me ten dollars more than I was prepared to spend.

Just Saying ‘Yes’–$30.00
We’ve all been in this situation. A friend asks you to go out, but you 1) can’t afford it or 2) don’t want to afford it. I didn’t have the money to spend on brunch one morning. But a friend who I had already rain-checked twice in a row really wanted to hang out and have pancakes. I gave in (it was before I read this recent GRS piece). We had a good time, but I could have suggested doing something that involved not spending money. However, this friend enjoys brunch, and I wanted to please her. She was pleased. It cost me $30.00.

In the past week alone, I’ve spent $42.00 on being too “nice.” That’s $168 a month and $2,000 a year I’m spending to be polite.

And it doesn’t necessarily stop there. I’ve realized there are other instances in which this non-confrontational, people-pleasing side of me has literally had to pay for being polite. Examples include not asking for a raise and allowing a roommate to overcharge me for rent.

Why I Do It
You probably know this situation. You’re unhappy with your restaurant meal or service, the waiter comes by and asks, “How was everything?” And even though everything was subpar, you respond: “It was great.”

Maybe you’re an assertive person and this has never happened to you, but I think many of us have this problem. In fact, I know many of us have this problem, because a study found that people who do this—say “it was great” even though it wasn’t—actually end up tipping the waiter more despite being dissatisfied.

What’s all that about?

According to the researchers, consumers feel guilty about their dissatisfaction and try to cover up their white lie by tipping more. The phenomenon is so prevalent, according to the study, that waiters know about it!

The psychology behind this is an entire post in itself, but at its core, I think it has to do with wanting to be accepted. We avoid confrontation and try to make strangers happy because, instinctively, we want to be liked.

But how much money are you willing to spend on being liked? The clerk at Bed, Bath & Beyond is cool and all, but I wouldn’t pay for him to like me, which is essentially what I’m doing when I keep quiet in order to avoid annoying him.

How to Stop
What I’m starting to realize is—all of this isn’t really about being polite. It has more to do with fear. We fear confrontation. We fear not being liked. We fear losing our friends.

For me, what’s helped to curb politeness fear-based spending is doing exactly what I’ve just outlined here—figuring out how much money has gone to being “too nice.”

Sometimes it’s just a couple of dollars, but if I had a couples of dollars for every time I thought, “it’s just a couple of dollars,” well—I’d have $42 dollars this week.

What’s also helped is the realization that I have financial goals. So when I give the pizza guy a 100 percent tip out of what, at its core, is guilt, I’m being impolite to myself and irresponsible with my financial goals.

This isn’t to say politeness should be completely tossed out the window. If I’m in line, there are ten people behind me, the store is closing in five minutes, and they have to go get a manager over my two dollars, I’m probably just going to tell them to forget about it.

It seems simple, but I’m learning that politeness is based on kindness and manners, not fear or unfounded guilt.

Sure, I can take a friend out for drinks, and maybe if I really feel like making someone’s day, I can give them a big tip. But those decisions should be based on something positive.

And one final thought as we continue our journeys to financial success—as Bill Cosby once put it: “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”

J.D.’s note: Read that last sentence again, the quote from Bill Cosby. This is huge, and not just in personal finance. They key to failure is trying to please everybody. I wish I’d learned this decades ago. If you can learn (and apply) this knowledge, you’ll be happier, healthier, and wealthier.

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