Monetizing Frustration

When I’m upset about the minor annoyances of life, I sometimes find it helpful to think of the price I’d charge for enduring the annoyance. For example, when my wallet was stolen, I wondered how many dollars would someone have had to pay me to consent to the taking. This thought experiment is comforting because the amount is usually much less than the daily fluctuation in my stock portfolio. Why should I be so bent out of shape for something that “all in” has a frustration cost of X, when I routinely endure a portfolio loss of 2X or 3X without wrinkling a brow?

But Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy has an even better “Why Not?” idea about monetizing frustration. After one of his players, Matt Barnes, was fined $20,000 for throwing a basketball into the stands, Van Gundy joked:

Barnes should consider throwing cash into the stands instead of a ball next time.

“That’s basically what he did,” the coach said. “At least if you did that, it’d be the same amount of money, and you’d be very popular. If he threw $20,000 in cash, he’d be very popular.”

Actually throwing money into the stands might cause a riot. But you could imagine a team keeping some cash on hand at courtside to let players, who were about to commit a finable offense, bypass the NBA middleman and give the fine directly to some designated recipient. Instead of throwing a ball into the stands, Barnes could have ceremonially and publicly deposited cash into a courtside forfeiture drawer — with the money going to charity or to rebate part of the ticket prices.

Publicly forfeiting money is a pretty credible way to signal that you are upset about a blown call. It is not cheap talk. Forfeiting money to fans or a charity that players like makes the talk a bit cheaper because players might get some value from making such a donation. But then again, the current NBA fines suffer from a similar problem:

The NBA and National Basketball Players Association (NBPA), per the league’s collective bargaining agreement, equally split fines paid by players, then donate the respective shares to the charities of their choice.

Rasheed Wallace
or Mark Cuban may be less deterred in criticizing the refs if they think the ensuing fine will ultimately go to a worthy charity. If Wallace plans to give a bunch to charity anyway, he can just reduce his non-fine giving so that the fine won’t have much of an effect. The NBA wisely chose to “not specify which charities benefit from the league’s donations.” It’s harder to rationalize that your fine is going to a good charity that you support if you don’t know the beneficiary of your fine.

The commitment website I cofounded,, takes a similar approach. Users who put money at risk to keep a commitment have the option of designating a specific charity or anti-charity. But we also give them the option of forfeiting money (if they fail to stickK to their goal) to a more ambiguous “charity” option — where we, like the NBA, choose not to specify the recipients clearly. When you’re trying to deter particular behaviors, sometimes it is better to make it harder to put a price on the frustration.


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  1. jane says:

    If there it was possible to substitute handling out cash for the physical response, the road rage would be painless (and not really involve rage) – the drivers would hand a few bills to the annoying person and politely ask him/her to get off the road for a few minutes.

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  2. charles says:

    Read this in “Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes” I think that was the title…anyway a gentleman established a fund of x dollars that he decided would go to charity at the end of the year so the cost is sunk. As the year went on he would deduct any fines for speeding tickets he got from the already sunk cost and less would go to charity but his out of pocket stayed the same. Very clever.

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  3. Patrick says:

    Um… your stock portfolio may rebound by that same amount the following day. Your wallet will not be returned. That’s why you’re angrier about the wallet.

    This qualifies as Freakonomics?!

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  4. MikeM says:

    #3 Patrick makes a good point. It’s not how much you lose that’s frustrating, it’s how you lose it.

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  5. Ben says:

    This also ignores the point that many, perhaps most, annoyances are recurring. Thinking, for example, that getting stuck in traffic on my commute to work is only about $5 of annoyance is initially comforting, but the realization that this is $5 per commute, twice a day, five days a week means that I endure about $2,500 of annoyance just getting to and from my job is profoundly depressing.

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  6. Ben says:

    edit: $2,500 per year

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  7. Imad Qureshi says:

    Seems like you never played any sport. Its the ball you wanna throw. If you were me then you’d probably yell loud at some teammate who made a mistake (I know its wrong but I was a kid – I wouldn’t do it now).

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  8. Richard Henderson says:

    While it may be interesting to ponder the idea of monetizing frustration this article is really short-sided. You have to consider all sides of the economic picture.

    If my wallet is stolen:
    What are the odds of it having cash in it?
    What are the odds of the crook using my credit cards?
    What are the odds that it will be returned?
    The potential risk/inconvenience varies from really small (get your wallet back with nothing stolen) to really big identity theft nightmare.

    Similarly, with the Matt Barnes incident, and you sort of got this – he was buying a lot of “stuff” by firing a basketball into the stands:
    A chance to express frustration
    His name in the paper and on your article
    A nuance to his personality
    etc., etc., etc.
    One could probably argue that it was more valuable to him than giving $20k to a charity.

    Again, it’s an interesting question, but super difficult to resolve economically.

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