WASHINGTON — It's the most wonderful time of the year for bargain hunters.
Die-hard discount shoppers started hunting for after-Christmas deals before Santa had a chance to put his reindeer back in the stables.
And even as we enter the new year, the stores will still be crowded. You can hear the shrieks of sale excitement from the parking lots as people rush to snag what didn't sell before Christmas.
But in 2018, I want to challenge you to rethink how you view a sale. Consider this: We have been brainwashed to see a sale as a thrilling event. It's not. We've been bamboozled.
Recently, I invited comedian and behavioral economics advocate Jeff Kreisler to join me for an online discussion about his book, "Dollars and Sense: How We Misthink Money and How to Spend Smarter," which challenges a lot of financial assumptions.
Kreisler and his co-author, behavioral economist Dan Ariely, take on the widely held belief that sales save you money.
"Basically, since it is so hard for us to assess the real value of almost anything, when something is on sale — when we are presented with a relative valuation — we take the easy way out and make our decision based upon the sale price," Kreisler and Ariely write.
The authors argue that when we see a sale, we should ignore what the item used to cost. It's irrelevant. Instead, what we should be doing is considering what else we should or could do with the money we might spend on the sale item.
"Think about transactions in terms of opportunity costs by considering more explicitly what we're sacrificing for what we're getting," they write. "Buying a $60 shirt marked down from $100 isn't 'saving $40'; it is spending $60."
During the online chat, one reader remarked that Kreisler's take on sales was a little too radical.
"I just want to defend SOME sales," the person wrote. "I'm trying to guide my adult niece, and one of the things I've been teaching her is about sales and necessities. Know your prices. Buy your laundry detergent only when it is on sale (preferably with a coupon) and buy the [new] bottle before the [current] one is empty. You don't run out and you don't pay full price. Same with toilet paper, shampoo, soap, etc. Don't be fooled by club prices and multipacks, but if you like a brand of pasta, buy two boxes when it's on sale. She's learning to shop the sales for needs, not wants."
I used to think this way, too. I thought I was born to find a sale. But over the years, I've come to a realization. There are a lot of people who are good shoppers but not necessarily good savers. Sure, you have a pantry full of stuff you got on deep discount. But is your bank account stuffed with enough money for retirement or your child's college education?
Here's Kreisler's defense of his stance that discounts cloud our judgment: "I think William Shakespeare put it best when he said, 'A rose by any other name would still be a sale price designed to make your niece buy laundry detergent.' I don't mean to be flippant — OK, I do, but just a little — because I admire your efforts to teach your family good spending habits and think they're mostly on track but off by a bit."
Before you tune out, hear him out.
If you know detergent is always $5 everywhere and one store puts it on sale for $4, well, sure, that's a good time to buy, Kreisler says. But what if the detergent used to sell for $5, but the store raised the price to $12 and then puts it on sale for 50 percent off?
It's on sale, right?
The problem is we often don't really know whether the sale is truly a discount.
"Vendors don't just put things on sale because they want you to get a deal," Kreisler says. "Your niece should know her prices, the amount of money leaving her pocket, but she still shouldn't be fooled by the words 'on sale' because, as the proverb goes, 'A fool and her money are soon owners of an industrial-sized vat of laundry detergent.'"
Retailers know that we've become addicted to the sale. We've come to think we're a chump if we pay full price. So, they do this discount dance with us. They pretend to mark things way down so we feel lifted up by catching it "on sale."
Here's my New Year's challenge for you. As the young adults say, "stay woke." A sale isn't necessarily a financial conquest. More often, you're being played.
Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at SingletaryM or Facebook at facebook.com/MichelleSingletary.