Eat Less Give More

How we changed one consumption behavior, and donated over $500

December is a season often associated with over-indulgence, especially when it comes to eating. But the end of the year is also traditionally a time for giving. This December, my husband Ben and I tried a behavioral experiment to accomplish two goals: being more mindful about what we eat, and donating to more non-profits we want to support.

How It Works

Each time we dine out we set a $100 budget, and whatever we don’t spend on dinner that night gets put aside for the donation pool. So if we spend $40 on dinner, we donate $60.

Why It Works

This method is deceptively simple, yet surprisingly powerful, because we are forced to think in terms of opportunity cost. Usually, it’s no big deal to order another drink, a second appetizer, a richer entrée, and finish off with dessert and a coffee. It’s just a few more dollars here and there. But this experiment forces us to reframe every additional menu item as a lost donation, which forces us to make more mindful decisions about what to eat—and when to stop.

The Results

By sharing plates and drinking less, we’ve pared down our restaurant bills this month, which varied from ramen houses ($25) to French bistros ($65). Our average donation per meal is just over $58 across nine dinners, for a total of $525.

We gave the money to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the San Francisco Food Bank.

Of course this experiment can also work in various other ways. For example, every time you go shopping, give yourself a budget and put what you don’t spend towards something else, which could be to charity or saving up for another purchase. The key to invoking the opportunity-cost way of thinking is to move that amount from unallocated to allocated for a specific purpose—which forces you to think about spending that money in terms of not spending it on something else. Making opportunity cost more salient is a simple way to change our consumption behavior.

Give it a try.

This experiment was inspired by concepts in Dan Ariely’s A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior course on Coursera.

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