What Chinese New Year Blackjack Taught Me About Money

blackjackOkay, hypothetical scenario.

Imagine you’re on your honeymoon in Las Vegas, chilling in your swanky hotel room while your spouse is taking a shower. While checking out the minibar, you come across a $5 gaming chip in one of the drawers – the previous occupant must have mistakenly left it there.

You take the $5 chip and head downstairs to the roulette tables, where you bet it on your favorite number: 25. To your surprise, the ball lands on 25 and the dealer hands you $175. You decide to let your winnings ride by betting it on 25 again. Once again, the ball lands on 25 and your stash grows to $6,125. Taking this as a good sign, you bet it again and win, netting you $214,375.

You’re on a roll! You’re still in luck in the next round, which gives you $7.5 million dollars, more than what most people will ever earn in a lifetime. You bet it all on 25 again and amazingly, you now have $262 million, which makes you richer than Mitt Romney.

You decide to try your luck one last time. If it works, you’d be worth almost ten BILLION dollars. Sadly, this time the ball plops onto the number “00” with a sickening thud, and you lose all your winnings. You walk back to your hotel room and tell your spouse you were playing roulette downstairs. Your spouse asks how you did.

“Not bad,” you reply, “I only lost $5.”

The Great Chinese New Year Mystery

Sooooo…. What does a botched up roulette game have in common with Chinese New Year?

For most of us here in Singapore, Chinese New Year involves a helluva lot of eating, answering awkward questions about why you’re not married, and… gambling.

This year, I found myself wondering why Chinese New Year was such a popular time for gambling. Most of the time, I scoff at the hordes of people who frequent casinos and throw their hard-earned savings away. But whenever Chinese New Year rolls around, I find myself stumbling to blackjack games like a delirious addict on too much bak kwa.

After pondering over this curious dilemma for a couple of days, I had my conclusion: The culprit was the innocuous little ang bao.

(Side note: For my international friends who don’t know what “ang baos” are, they’re red envelopes filled with cash that your relatives give you during Chinese New Year while you’re still unmarried. #norushhere)

Mentally Accounting for Mental Accounting

Psychologically, receiving an ang bao has exactly the same effect as finding a $5 chip in your Las Vegas hotel room. Namely, they’re both “found” money, which inflicts this interesting psychological effect on you known as mental accounting.

Nope, mental accounting has absolutely nothing to do with your ability to multiply 17 x 32 in your head. Instead, it’s a psychological phenomenon that causes you to treat money differently depending on where it comes from, where it is kept, or how it is spent. So mental accounting posits that you’d treat $100 from an ang bao very differently from $100 you’ve worked hard to earn. Mental accounting causes you to spend $500 in your vacation allowance way more freely than you would for the same $500 in your savings account.

But mental accounting has a dark side too. It causes you to be flippant when you’re dealing with “surprise” or “additional” money, like your bonuses, or your gambling gains. Ever find yourself winning a hand at poker, and then aggressively calling or raising in subsequent rounds? That’s mental accounting at work, and it could easily work against you.

Two Systems to Prevent You From Getting Screwed

The strategy to prevent mental accounting from screwing with you is to set predefined systems, something I practice as much as possible. Go to all gambling games with two predefined rules: 1) a stop-loss and 2) a lock-in percentage.

Most people are familiar with a stop-loss, which is a predefined amount you’d be fine with losing. But few people implement a lock-in percentage, which kicks in once you start winning. For example, if I set a lock-in percentage of 20%, I pocket 20 cents for every dollar I win and don’t touch it for the remainder of the night. These rules have helped me to save hundreds of dollars over the past few years.

But the awesomeness of the lock-in percentage rule goes way beyond Chinese New Year blackjack games – Think about how you can apply it to your bonuses, allowances, inheritances, rewards, rebates, or any sort of “found” money you come across. For example, predefining a rule that states you’ll save 50% of your bonus will help you to save way more effectively than the average cubicle dweller who blows his entire bonus on dumb things to overcompensate for his sad, sad life.

When applied right, predefined rules could potentially save you tens of thousands of dollars throughout your lifetime.

Psychology > Tips

Ask most people how they handle their personal finances, and they’d give you all sorts of tips and tactics like choosing the right credit cards or investing in some obscure growth stock.

However, while we don’t think of it often, it’s interesting how psychology has such a disproportionate influence on our ability to hold on to and grow money. A mastery of a couple of psychological principles could be way more effective than hundreds of money tips and tactics.

So remember this the next time you’re at a roulette table. Don’t say I didn’t do nothin’ for ya. 🙂

Footnote: Definition of mental accounting and casino example taken from “Why Smart People Make Dumb Money Decisions” (aff link) by Gary Belsky and Thomas Gilovich

Image credit: Images_of_Money

Why You Should Never Be Jealous

Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/brennuskrux/3356833255/sizes/m/in/photostream/Hola! So sorry for being MIA for the past couple of weeks. It’s the usual November workplace crunch, and I’ve been occupied with a ton of work including, among other things, emceeing my company’s World Marketing Conference – a glitzy 2-day event attended by senior management and hundreds of overseas sales and marketing staff. Here’s what was running through my mind right before the event started:

Emcee-ing W.M.C

I’m standing in the middle of the stage, microphone clasped in my sweaty palms, bright spotlights training on me like police searchlights on a trapped prisoner. In front of me sits a sea of hundreds of business-suited men and women, murmuring in anticipation. My CEO in the front row looks expectantly at me and frowns.

I’m nervous because I’ve never emceed a formal event before, let alone one as huge of a scale as this. Backstage, I silently pray that my scripted jokes wouldn’t be met with stony silence. One screw-up, one waver in my voice, could affect my reputation for years to come. It’s like freakin’ high school all over again.

But then again, no one knows better. Just by looking at me, no one can tell that the only emceeing experience I’ve ever had is hosting my baby cousin’s birthday party. And so I get a stunning revelation:

Just fake it.

I take a deep breath, smile my biggest smile, and start talking. The delivery goes well. My colleagues congratulate me afterwards. No one could tell I was nervous as hell. One of the big bosses slaps me on my shoulder and tells me to get ready for more emceeing gigs. I may not ever be as good as a professional, but I can totally fake a performance that’s good enough.

How Do They Afford All This?

My successful attempt at faking got me thinking about how everyone goes through life wearing masks and faking something.

Whenever I hit the clubs, I can’t help but observe the dudes sitting at the VIP tables. They’d be surrounded by other rich-looking, beautiful people, as if they just stepped out of a Like A G6 music video. Just like me, they’d probably be dressed in a casual shirt and jeans, but their shirts are $400 apiece from Armani and mine are $40 from the sale rack at Uniqlo. They’d be downing champagne by the bottle, while I’d be chilling with my bottle of Tiger Beer. Once the night is over, they’d be driving home in their Porches or Maseratis, while I’d be stumbling to find a cab (or a Night Rider bus if I’m not too tipsy).

For a brief moment, I’d think to myself: “How do they afford all this?” I’d start to wonder what they do for a living, and how awesome it must be to be them.

Wealth – The Easiest Thing To Fake

And then I remind myself that I’m simply jumping to conclusions. What if they’re faking it, just like how I was faking my prowess as an emcee? After all, wealth is the easiest thing to fake. Blow a couple of months’ salary on clothes and drinks, and anyone can look like a superstar.

The truth is, I don’t know anything about them. I don’t know if they’re prudent in their spending, or if they spend every cent they earn. I don’t know if they earn thousands of dollars in passive income, or if they lie awake worrying about how they’ll keep up their lifestyles. I don’t know if they have a rock solid portfolio, or if they’re so deeply in debt that even their enormous paychecks can’t make a dent in their credit card bills.

Redirecting the Moolah

And then I remind myself about just how much I’ve been pouring into my savings and investments, month after month, without fail. No wonder I haven’t bought a new pair of jeans in 4 years – I’ve been too busy shoveling cash into index ETFs and building up a downpayment fund so I don’t have to take on too much mortgage debt.

No wonder I can’t afford to celebrate the end of the year with five bottles of champagne, because I’d much rather set aside a few hundred dollars every month for travel, funding trips like my $3,500 West Coast vacation. It’s not that I can’t afford to spend on nice clothes and drinks, I just choose to put my money towards things that I value much more: freedom and experiences.

Lots of people fake their wealth. But without looking at their audited personal financial statements, there’s really no way to tell if they’re the real deal, or if it’s just a well-polished illusion. We simply can’t make assumptions just by looking at people.

So keep that in mind the next time you watch an emcee on stage, or catch yourself getting jealous of that well-dressed dude at the VIP table. They might just be faking it. 😉