During goal-directed decision-making, animals must integrate information from the external environment and their internal state to maximize resource localization while minimizing energy expenditure. How this complex problem is solved by the nervous system remains poorly understood. Here, using a combined behavioural and neurophysiological approach, we demonstrate that the mollusc Lymnaea performs a sophisticated form of decision-making during food-searching behaviour, using a core system consisting of just two neuron types. The first reports the presence of food and the second encodes motivational state acting as a gain controller for adaptive behaviour in the absence of food. Using an in vitro analogue of the decision-making process, we show that the system employs an energy management strategy, switching between a low- and high-use mode depending on the outcome of the decision. Our study reveals a parsimonious mechanism that drives a complex decision-making process via regulation of levels of tonic inhibition and phasic excitation.