1908: Credit Card Rewards

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
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Credit Card Rewards
I should make a list of all the things I could be trying to optimize, prioritized by ... well, I guess there are a few different variables I could use. I'll create a spreadsheet ... eh
Title text: I should make a list of all the things I could be trying to optimize, prioritized by ... well, I guess there are a few different variables I could use. I'll create a spreadsheet ... eh


Ambox notice.png This explanation may be incomplete or incorrect: VERY basic explanation.
If you can address this issue, please edit the page! Thanks.

A credit card, at it's most basic form, is a loan contract to an individual from a bank. Like all contracts, the bank will offer several different types in an attempt to appeal to a large number of individuals. Unlike traditional loans which focus on a single item (car, house, boat, etc), a credit card is an unsecured loan geared towards daily and weekly transactions. Because these transactions cover a wide variety of items, credit cards can be further tweaked towards offering benefits in certain areas. Gas purchases, or even gas purchases through a single retail chain can offer higher rewards on one type of plan vs other plans.

These benefits, typically called rewards, have several different options. "Cash back" is a reward where the individual is given money back when they make a purchase that follows certain rules spelled out in the contract. "No interest" is a reward where the individual is not charged interest on their purchases if they pay the loaned money back within a specified amount of time. "Points" are similar to the cash back program, but are typically reserved towards purchasing a single large item or plan. Points towards a vacation is a popular option. Besides these three types of rewards, the number of actual rewards to pick from are limited only by the creativity and fiscal limitations, and of the issuing bank's CEO.

Cueball is trying to choose the optimal credit card program (the one that will result in biggest savings with the yearly fiscal median (YFM) he has). He realizes that he has to subtract the cost of him spending time on optimizing, so he wants to optimize the time needed to do the optimizing. But in order to to that efficiently, he first has to optimize the time spent on optimizing the time.

Hairy notices a hidden assumption that Cueball will spend his time on something more productive than this, e.g. that his time has value. Cueball responds that he can "fail to optimize so many better things." This means that Cueball is aware of the big flaw in his reasoning.

The title text further expands the idea. Cueball wants to present a list of things to optimize to Hairy. However, he still needs to optimize the priorities of that list, before optimizing the list itself.


Ambox notice.png This transcript is incomplete. Please help editing it! Thanks.

[Cueball sits at a desk and is on his laptop. Hairy stands behind him.]

Cueball: I'm trying to figure out which of these credit card rewards programs is best given my spending.

[Cueball leans backwards.]

Cueball: But at some point, the cost of the time it takes me to understand the options outweighs their difference in value.

[Close-up of Cueball's head and torso.]

Cueball: So I need to figure out where that point is, and stop before I reach it.

[Cueball has his arms outstretched.]

Cueball: But... when I factor in the time to calculate THAT, it changes the overall answer.
Hairy: I question the assumption that you'd otherwise be spending your time on something more valuable.
Cueball: Come on, I could be failing to optimize so many better things!

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Does Randall realize this goes completely against the "Working" comic (https://xkcd.com/951/)? I wonder if he's changed his outlook or if he's just inconsistent :P

I read it as if the character likes doing this, and wouldn't be doing anything more fun otherwise. So if it is a game to you, sure waste your time, but if you are doing something you don't particularly like and waste more time than you save in money, you are just being stupid. 22:43, 29 October 2017 (UTC)
There's also the fact that in "Working" the additional work was required every time, and so each additional penny saved comes from additional work. Here, this is about doing the work once and getting the outcome several times. This is actually pretty consistent with someone who is into programming - where in theory you do more work once to save time on each occurence of a repeted task. Now the fact that even "optimizing once and for all" isn't a sure outcome is discussed in https://xkcd.com/1319/ . 11:24, 30 October 2017 (UTC)
I've often used this reasoning myself, actually. First example to mind is renaming multiple files (like episodes of a TV show). I COULD rename them one by one according to my naming scheme, but often I put a little extra work into having Excel figure out my scheme and renaming them programmatically, then rename them all in under a second. The time I spent is more than how long renaming a file or two would have been, but less time than if I had renamed them all. :) NiceGuy1 (talk) 04:38, 31 October 2017 (UTC)
Actually I find the point of view here is roughly identical to Working... In that one he has successfully determined that the extra time isn't worth it in that particular case, while here he's trying to find a balance between the extra time spent and the rewards of his analysis. :) NiceGuy1 (talk) 04:38, 31 October 2017 (UTC)
I don't it goes against 951, essentially he's trying to stop before he's spent 9 minutes to save a dollar (and hairy is questioning that he would have otherwise spent that 9 minutes earning more than a dollar) 01:17, 28 October 2017 (UTC)

This reminds me of Hofstadter's law // See also #1658 and this Explain xkcd for #1658 18:26, 27 October 2017 (UTC)

How did he miss the circular reference error? (unsigned comment from

This is similar to comic 1205 (Worth the time), except that it's just a one-time event and just thinking about the table makes it worse. For example the top right cell of that table could just say "none, because it took you longer to search for and apply this chart). Fabian42 (talk) 09:36, 30 October 2017 (UTC)

There's also 1445 (Efficiency), in which Randall confesses this search to optimize tasks killing his effeiciency is a personal problem for him. 14:30, 30 October 2017 (UTC)

Simple, use an infinite summation to figure out exactly. That's right, Jacky720 just signed this (talk | contribs) 18:41, 15 April 2018 (UTC)