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Meaningless Money

On Twitter I was approached by an anti-litter organisation, which is trying to change people’s behaviour towards their environment and decrease litter. They asked me the following question:

“How would you recommend we frame/convey a key message that money spent on litter is being wasted?”

Now of course it was not meant that keeping the environment clean is a waste of money. But why let the local councils do what any individual can do themselves? Having the local councils clean up our mess is very costly. They spend about £800,000,000 a year cleaning up after us. Do you know what you can do with that much money? I can’t really picture it. I know it’s definitely a lot of money, but that is the extent of my knowledge.

This is an issue many people have. When someone tells us we are wasting millions and billions of pounds, we can’t really imagine what that means. For most, money is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Although I have to mention that I am sure there are some Scrooges and Dagobert Ducks out there eagerly waiting to prove me wrong…. Regardless, for most people money is a means. As a result, having a lot of the means is not something concrete. We cannot picture it. We don’t imagine ourselves being surrounded by paper with the queen’s face on it and swimming through it as our morning exercise. That doesn’t mean anything to us.

What we can picture is what money can do. We know what we can get for £100. That’s the groceries right there. Or it pays part of the rent, the utility bills or council tax or a very nice night out. If we have a tax windfall of £1000, we also know exactly what to do with that money. Half is for savings (or debt repayment), the other half will be mostly spend on the categories mentioned above. Maybe a slightly bigger treat for ourselves as well. Taking loved ones out to dinner, a bit of shopping etc. But nothing too extravagant.

When we are starting to talk larger numbers, like winning the lottery kind of large, we move beyond groceries and rent. We move beyond our practical necessities into the realm of luxury. Winning £1 million would mean a fancy house, a very luxurious holiday or early retirement. Anything up from £10 would mean a jet set life. But most people can still picture what these numbers would mean for them personally. But after a while, when talking about numbers such as £100 million, or £1 billion, we fail to see what it means. The number has become so large our minds go blank. Even if we were to spend million after million, there’d be so much left that after a while you have to sit yourself down and have a serious think about what to spend money on next. What a luxury problem.

This doesn’t just occur when trying to figure out how to spend large sums of money. It is all forms of money: income, debt, windfalls, loans, investments, charity donations etc. After a certain size or amount, people become unable to properly picture what that means and what that amount of money can be used for. As soon as we are unable to see an actual end for our means, it is game over. So when the anti-litter organisation told me they want to inform people how costly their littering behaviour is, I told them to reconsider. Although we all know that £800,000,000 a year is a lot of money, it means nothing to us.

Thankfully, the organisation ended their question with mentioning how they thought local councils would and should spend the money if it weren’t “wasted” on cleaning up litter. Their examples were repairing pot-holes in the road to increase road safety, or increasing individual welfare through social care for the elderly or providing community centres for young people. And that is great. That is exactly what we need. This means something to us. This we can put on a poster. A big-million-£-number doesn’t mean much to people, but knowing you not cleaning up after yourself could deprive someone like your own grandmother from proper care, that cuts deep.

Although we have evolved quite a bit, people are still animals. As such, we respond best to our most primal emotions. We can recognise those emotions in others as well. Seeing someone else being happy makes us happier as well. The opposite also holds. If someone in your direct surroundings is sad, you will feel sadder as well. This effect is especially strong if you care for, or identify with the person experiencing the emotion.

How does this affect advertising for the anti-litter organisation? As I said, showing what can actually be done with the money if we weren’t wasting it is a great first step. But our second step is to strike where it hurts. Identify problems such as loitering youth, and how much nicer the area would be for everyone if they had a youth centre. Or how many less accidents would happen if the roads were fixed and the streets were safer for playing children. Or to really hit “the feels,” show me how my being a selfish, lazy person that litters is depriving sweet, nice, deserving, elderly people from the care they need. Show how caring homes are understaffed as a result of the misdirection of funding. You’ll think twice about not putting your stuff away in the bin.

Since 2010, Councils in England have had their budgets reduced by 32%, and as a result many of them are semi-bankrupt. We can do something about that: clean up after ourselves. A semi-bankrupt organisation can’t clean up after your lazy ass and make sure a sweet elderly lady gets the care she needs and deserves. Your choice. Choose right.


Behavioural Science

Personal Finance



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