Coffee heat rising

How do you make a long-term decision rationally?

What strategies do you use when you need to make a decision that will affect your finances and lifestyle for years? Possibly for the rest of your life?

They may be huge decisions: Should we have a baby? Should we adopt a child? Should we move Mom into the spare room or pay to put her up in a life-care community? These are moves that will change your life permanently.

They may be decisions that, while still big ones, can be reversed or won’t necessarily last forever: Should I buy a car? Should I rent or buy housing? Should I quit my job and go back to school to finish a degree?

Or they may be smaller decisions that, while they won’t change the course of your life, will affect your finances for months or even a year or so: Should we get that new Play-Station? Maybe we should buy a $5,000 wide-screen HDTV and subscribe to cable when regular broadcasting goes off the air? Should I lend my weird cousin a couple thousand bucks to start a business, money that he’ll probably never repay?

Thinking through the costs and consequences of decisions like these takes some strategizing. And I must say, strategize as I might, I’m never perfect at arriving at the “right” decision, whatever that might be. Often I end up just going with my gut instinct.

Today, for example, I’ve discovered the Humane Society has a beautiful little Pembroke Welsh Corgi up for adoption, two years old, female, spayed…perfect! The Corgi is one of several breeds I’ve considered as a likely candidate for a new doggy roommate. They’re relatively small—about 25 to 40 pounds. And although they do shed, they’re generally sound, very smart, and because they’re herding dogs, they have a German shepherd-like disposition. They also have a big dog voice in a small dog body, a consideration for a woman who lives alone in an inner-city neighborhood.

When I consider the pro’s and cons of adopting another dog, I end up listening to a schizophrenic conversation between the Voice of Rationality and the Elf of Whim:

Rationality: You don’t need another dog. You need an engineer to fix the trolley that you’ve slipped!

Whim: Engineers can’t fix a broken heart. And as soon as that engineer has fixed the trolley, he’s outta here. I need some company, and at my age, you can be sure it’s not going to come with two legs.

Rationality: Moron! You spent $21,000 on Anna and Walt! Think of your pocketbook.

Whim: I spent it because I could afford it. You shouldn’t let your cheapskate instincts limit your life.

Rationality: The floors are clean. They’ve been clean for two solid weeks! You don’t even have to vacuum the darn things—you just dustmop and run the steam cleaner. There’s no dogsh** in the backyard to clean up every single day. The Burglar Portal is sealed shut. Corgis shed doghair dunes, just like Ger-sheps, and they track in mud that has to be scoured off the floor! Do you really want to do that again?

Whim: Uhm…well, no.

Rationality: You’re finally free—FREE, I tell you!—to go someplace on vacation! Do you really want to spend the rest of your life vacationing in the backyard?

Whim: Doesn’t much matter. I’ve seen the world and don’t need to see it again.

Rationality: What do you need a dog for?

Whim: To keep me company. To alert me if someone comes around.

Rationality: Join a club. Get a burglar alarm.

Whim: <<sob!>>

Rationality: Okay, okay. List the pro’s of getting a dog.

Whim: Companionship. Something alive to come home to. Rescue a nice dog. Walking burglar deterrent. Entertainment value. Maybe I will stop crying every day.

Rationality: Ducky. Now list the cons.

Whim: Expense, expense, expense, and expense. Dog dunes to clean up every day. Twice-a-day feeding. Filthy floors to scrub on hands and knees. Daily yard cleanup. Risk of dog drowning in pool. Possible excavation of landscaping. Restriction of activities—have to be home to feed dog, can’t travel without extra hassle and expense.

Rationality: I just can’t see a rational trade-off here.

Whim: Who are you, Mr. Spock?

Rationality: Have you thought of adopting a tribble?

The problem with making lists of pro’s and cons is that it’s very difficult to assign weight to subjective elements in the list. In this case, for example: What, really, is a dog’s companionship worth? How much, really, does having a dog limit your life and your ability to meet other people? How much, really, do you care about that?

Do you have any strategies that actually work when it comes to making decisions that involve both financial and subjective considerations?

Friday, June 13, 2008


Mrs. Micah

No tribbles. Ever! Wait…maybe just one would work, maybe it’s when there are 2 that problems start. But I think tribbles just might reproduce asexually.

Maybe while you’re still recovering from the loss you could spend a little time at an animal shelter? Volunteer or somesuch? It might make you want a puppy even more (in which case you could get to know the dog a bit) or you it might give you just enough. Or help your rational side emphasize the downsides.

Friday, June 13, 200802:13 PM

Debbie M

Oh, sure, I make the lists.And they are both the same length.

Then I weight each item on the list, and the two lists still total the same amount.

At this point I decide that either decision would probably be okay.

Another strategy is to think of the worst-case-scenarios for both actions.Or at least worst-case imaginably likely scenarios.For example, if you get a dog, it could be all sweetness and light during the interview, but once you get it home it shreds everything and is always escaping and biting someone.Or maybe you turn out not to enjoy the companionship of that particular dog after all.(Not: the dog could really be an illegal alien in disguise and since you saved it, it’s now going to destroy the planet.)

And if you don’t get the dog, you will always be unhappy and bitter, unable to make connections with anyone, and you get fired and kicked out of your house and die … oh, wait, I am exaggerating again.

And you can think of other ways to handle your concerns (like your “Join a club.Get a burglar alarm.” response)

You can think of ways to minimize the probable and possible negatives of both decisions, like start a pet savings account or brainstorm ways to find companionship.

I’m wondering if calling one point of view Rationality and one Whim is a hint for you.One could also argue that continuing having a dog is rational and suddenly deciding this is the time to go dog-free is a whim!

Good luck.

Friday, June 13, 200802:17 PM


Hey there. I’m a believer in having a dog. The trick is to get the right dog. You’ve got other comments already with good advice on the list making. My only additional advice is that you need to start your list from true zero. When you made your list you were already focused on a specific dog so you are already locked into some of the cons. Think about starting over from the point of view that you will manage the cons any way you can, including choosing a breed of dog that will eliminate some of them, and then figure out ways to minimize the rest.

I had to go through the same process two years ago. When my baby girl wanted a puppy for her graduation, I was against it. My list of cons was very similar to yours. I know I’m not going to stay on top of cleaning up dog hair every day, and I’m not willing to live with it. Most of the year there is nobody at my house for 10 hours a day. That’s no life for a young thing. I also knew we couldn’t stand the chewing, puddling puppy phase. I also had concerns about traveling with a dog, how it would behave in public and whether it would trash my car. The list got long, but my baby wanted a puppy and all my reasons for denying her were selfish.

So for months I secretly researched dog breeds, finally settling on a miniature schnauzer. They don’t shed. Not at all. The breed also met my size requirements and had a decent reputation for health, temperament and activity level. With the breed picked out, I started looking for the right dog. I didn’t get far before I realized I had to define what was right for us. Based on past experience, I knew we needed a dog with a temperament midway between total alpha and trembling submissive. Instead of a new puppy, we needed one that was four to six months old. At that age they can stand more alone time, and if you get one that is socialized properly, lots of the bad puppy stuff is over.

As baby girl’s graduation date neared, I scoured pet ads, rescue organization postings, talked to local veterinary assistants, and tried every other possible source looking for leads. Then I went and actually saw all the pups I found in the right age range. It was hard to walk away from some, but I knew it was best in the long run to pass on the timid and the hyper, no matter how cute they were. With four weeks to go, I found the perfect little five month old male. His family had to let him go because they discovered their son had a pet allergy. Because I could see the dog with the family in their home while we visited, I could tell that there was a very good chance that he had the right temperament and had been well socialized. They were even willing to give the puppy a temporary home with the child’s grandmother until my daughter’s graduation day so that once he joined our family, she would be home with him all day every day for three months. That way he’d be even older before he had to face a 10 hour stretch without his family.

All the work and waiting paid off. We can’t imagine being without the little guy, and he is almost no trouble at all. The key is that I held out for the right dog even though it took four months to find him. The rest of the cons on my list have been easy too. He was mostly trained from the start and has practically trained himself ever since. The house stays cleaner than I imagined it could be with an inside dog. Keeping him clipped every month ($35/mo for me and well worth it) means he doesn’t drag leaves and crud into the house. I manage the muddy paws by keeping the doggy door locked on rainy days and meeting him at the door with a towel every time I let him in. I feed him outrageously expensive food made from human-grade ingredients with no cheap fillers and low on potential allergens. I’m fine with the expense because I know it will pay off in less pooper scooping and stave off expensive degenerative diseases. Now that he’s fully grown, he eats once a day in the morning before I leave for work. I feed him just enough to keep him trim and limit snacks and treats the rest of the day. Feeding him last thing before I leave helps to minimize the separation anxiety. It also means that I can run errands after work or go out with friends without worrying about him home alone wondering where his dinner is. When we go on a trip without him he goes to a doggy daycare. On the financial side, yes, we spend money owning a dog, but we’ve got it to spend and there is no question that having him improves our quality of life.

Wow, that was long. Sorry. I’ll be stepping off my soapbox now, except for one last thought – Walt and Anna gave you lots of good blog material. Are you really ready to give that up?

Friday, June 13, 200803:37 PM

Bret Frohlich

I learned about worst-case-scenario decision making a while back and it has changed my life for the better.Now, I can make quick well-reasoned decisions and I feel confident, even if it doesn’t turn out perfect.

Before, I used pros-and-cons decision making and it always left me with a nagging doubt, even if everything turned out OK in the end.

If you want the dog, then just get it.Life is too short to deprive yourself of the companionship.My friend had a Corgi and she loved it.Me, I love my aging German Shepherd.She sheds a lot, but nobdody jumps in my backyard.

Friday, June 13, 200811:13 PM


I like the “worst-case” approach. It cuts through a lot of dithering…and listing pro’s and cons certainly does lend itself to dithering.

Finally I decided in favor of getting the little dog (see the next day’s post for a photo). It may be dumb…but what’s the worst that can happen? She’ll chew up $3,000 worth of leather furniture, bark until the neighbors call their lawyers, and end up back at the Humane Society. Hey…how could I turn her down?

Saturday, June 14, 200809:24 AM