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.


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.


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.


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?!


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


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.


edit: $2,500 per year

Imad Qureshi

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).

Richard Henderson

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.


Justin James

When in line at a store, and someone is bickering over a coupon that the store won't take, I have a habit of asking them how much the coupon is for, and offering them up to double the cost of the coupon to let me buy it from them. I'd rather give someone $2 out of my pocket than spend 10 minutes in line listening to someone whine that the register won't accept their $1 air freshener coupon.

This happened to me a few weeks ago, I was waiting to check out, and someone was arguing over $2 in free air fresheners. Meanwhile, there was a line building up of 10+ people, the store folks had to yank everyone else away from their duties (5 cashiers) to ring people up. Figure, that's 3+ man hours of wasted time, average cost, oh, $15/hour (some of those folks could be very well paid, some of them not so well paid). So, guestimated $45 in lost productivity for $2 in coupons?



I'm pretty sure the NBA would fine Matt Barnes if he threw cash into the stands, so he would lose more money on top of what he threw into the stands.

Better just to fume about the call after all the reporters have gone away.


@9 Justin - Interesting approach.

Do people generally accept your offer to buy the coupon? I imagine certain customers accept your offer and happily go on their way. However, I could envsion other customers getting embarassed, confused or even angry at your offer.


@9 Justin: I've done the same myself a few times. When I made the offer to an elderly lady and a harried mother, they accepted the cash and, though they gave me a strange look, thanked me. I made the offer once to a man who looked like he was in his 50s, and he flatly refused.

Just a guess, but I'd bet that to the elderly woman and harried mother, the few dollars really did make a difference, whereas the man was arguing on the principal of the thing.


Throwing a basketball is a visceral act and an unrestrained response to a frustration trigger - going over to the bench, grabbing wads of cash and hurling it at the crowd would never have the same visceral and emotional impact. Plus, it's illegal in many jurisdictions if such action incites people to riot.

Manuel Vasquez

If the NBA announced that all fines went to Sarah Palin's campaign treasury, it would immediately improve behavior.

Ken Arromdee

"I'd rather give someone $2 out of my pocket than spend 10 minutes in line listening to someone whine that the register won't accept their $1 air freshener coupon."

Arguing with a store over accepting a coupon (if your claim is legitimate) is a public good. You benefit by getting to use the coupon, but everyone else also benefits because it becomes less likely that other people will have as much hassle getting coupons accepted in the future. If you pay only for the cost of the coupon, you're actually doing everyone else a disservice since nobody gets the public good and the store won't improve its coupon policy.


There is a difference between the outcome of your choice (in an investment) being assessed with a volatile value by a third party, and a third party making a choice to steal an item from you.

Maybe because I ate Taco Bell for lunch, this reminds me of the scene in Demolition Man where Stallone curses at the citations-for-curse-words robot to produce ticket scrips for use as toilet paper.


@15, that's is possibly the most ridiculous thing I've read here in a while.

I would NEVER consider arguing a coupon a public good, because for everytime it could be a public good, I've seen ten people arguing that they should get to use their expired coupon because they were just too busy to get to the store before it closed, as if because they received the coupon for whatever reason, they are entitled to use it as they see fit, not as it was intended.

Theoretically you make a good point, but you're wrong.


Are NBA fines tax deductible as charitable contributions?


They should be forced to put $20,000 into a cannon each game and if they commit a finable offense the money gets shot out of a cannon at the crowd. That would be about the only way I'd go to a basketball game.

Benjamin Seghers

Arguing about coupons is only a public good if the store was in the wrong for not accepting the coupon. In most cases, I suspect the store is correct that the coupon being handed in is expired or otherwise invalid. So rather than promoting the good of everyone, arguing over an (invalid) coupon is more likely to hold up lines and frustrate people. I like Justin James's idea.