A stack of different colored credit cards.

Research Illuminates Credit Card Habit

It’s 2012, so kiss the money spent last month goodbye. But if any skeptics out there still need confirmation, here it is:

Academic research shows that compulsive purchases are more likely with credit cards, which put distance, in space and time, between the act of buying the item and paying for it.

“The pain of paying is somewhat dulled” by using plastic, Priya Raghubir at New York University and Joydeep Srivastava at the University of Maryland, show in their research paper titled, “Monopoly Money: The Effect of Payment Coupling and Form on Spending Behavior.”

If reducing your use of credit cards – even converting to a cash budget – is a New Year’s resolution, click “learn more” at the bottom of this post to see six previous articles on Squared Away about credit card behavior and psychology. They might help readers better understand a bad habit many of us share. …Learn More

A bill with a minimum payment of $20.00, and the corner of a $20 bill.

Card Minimums Cause Puzzling Behavior

What is it about the minimum payment on credit card statements that makes people act so crazy?

Two years ago, Neil Stewart, a psychologist at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, confirmed his own and some behavioral economists’ suspicions: when the minimum payment line was entirely deleted from statements, cardholders paid 70 percent more.

The holiday shopping season is in full swing, underscoring how important this initial finding was. Credit-card companies set their minimum payments extremely low, significantly increasing customers’ total payouts over the long term – paying the minimum causes interest costs to accumulate faster.

Stewart and his colleagues have now advanced his prior research by testing how card-carrying Americans and British would react to different levels of minimum payments. The result this time: the higher the minimum, the less people paid.

“We’re not entirely sure what’s going on in people’s heads,” said co-author Linda Salisbury, a professor in the Carroll School of Management at Boston College. The key, however, is a well-known psychological concept called “anchoring,” she said. …Learn More

Three older people laughing in rocking chairs.

Long-Term Care: To Buy or Not to Buy

Let’s face it: thinking about long-term care insurance, nursing homes and home health aides is depressing.

It’s no wonder that just 10 percent to 12 percent of America’s elderly population has purchased a long-term care policy.

More are thinking about it though: New research shows that 40 percent of people 50 years or older who were surveyed had “thought a lot about needing long-term care” if they were to become ill in old age.

This research delved into the factors driving individual decisions about whether to buy long-term care coverage – or not buy. The decision “depend(s) on a complex amalgam of many different factors,” concluded a conference paper based on research conducted by the NBER Retirement Research Center.

Here are some of the findings in the paper, by Jeffrey Brown at the University of Illinois, Gopi Shah Goda at Stanford University, and Kathleen McGarry at the University of California at Los Angeles: …Learn More

A pile of different colored credit cards.

People Make Mistakes When Paying Cards

Myth: I should pay off the debt with the highest interest rate first to get out of debt quickly.
Truth: You should pay off the smallest debt first to create the greatest momentum in your debt snowball.

— DaveRamsey.com

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely might agree with Dave Ramsey’s second statement: Ariely and fellow researchers for the first time have established that people do, indeed, pay off their small card balances first, because it gives them a feeling of accomplishment.

“We have a desire to close things, to feel we’re making progress,” Ariely said in a recent interview. As each card is knocked off the list, “it’s something you can count.” The strategy also dovetails with people’s natural inclination to break down overwhelming tasks into sub-goals to make the task feel more manageable.

But the mathematical truth remains that holders of multiple cards get out of debt faster and cheaper if they first pay down the cards with the highest interest rates. In other words, it’s not in a card holder’s financial best interest to pay off the small balances first, even if it does make them feel better.

The researchers’ first experiment confirmed this behavioral tendency by testing 162 undergraduates…Learn More

Computer generated projections of a man as he ages.

How to Save: Imagine You’re Older

Economists’ explanation for why people don’t save for retirement is that they “discount” the future, placing a higher value on today’s pleasures. Educators argue that people don’t have the information they need to save.

Psychologists have a new theory: people can’t relate to their older, retired selves.

To test this theory, Hal Ersner-Hershfield and collaborators at Stanford University devised a way to help their research subjects – college students – identify with those nebulous figures out in the future, their older selves. When they did, the subjects were more likely to save money.

The national media have already covered this research. But it’s worth sharing as The Journal of Marketing Research plans to feature it in a special November issue on financial decision-making. The experiment demonstrates the contribution by psychologists to our understanding of how we handle money. …Learn More

An arrow curving upwards (left to right) over the top of increasingly tall graph bars.

The Power of Compound Interest

Every entrant to the workforce should be subjected to the same questions posed to California undergraduates in a new experiment about how well people understand compound interest.

Better to show the math than to explain it. Franny and Zooey just started working. Franny immediately begins depositing $100 per month – $1,200 every year – into her new retirement account, which pays 10 percent interest annually. Zooey doesn’t start saving for 20 years, but he puts in $300 every month — $3,600 annually — and also earns 10 percent interest.

In 40 years, Franny retires with $584,222 in her account – more than double Zooey’s $226,809.

Asked to calculate these future savings on their own, 90 percent of the undergraduates had vastly underestimated the totals in the experiment by Craig McKenzie at University of California, San Diego and Michael Liersch at New York University. Yet, this mathematical calculation is central to the financial well-being of most Americans. In 2009, more than half of all households were at risk of not having sufficient assets to retire, according to Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research, which hosts this blog. …Learn More

Journal to Spotlight Financial Behavior

JMR logo

The Journal of Marketing Research (JMR) will devote a special issue to interdisciplinary research on the hot topic of financial decision–making and behavior.

The issue is a smorgasbord of 15 articles on behavioral, marketing, economic, and psychological research on various financial activities, from borrowing money to establishing trust in financial transactions.

The November issue’s guest editor-in-chief, John G. Lynch, a psychologist who “wandered into marketing and consumer decision-making,” said the interdisciplinary approach advances everyone’s understanding of complex financial decisions.

“A given field understands a part of the answer. But we’re missing the larger whole,” he said. The special issue “would bring people together to read each other’s work and have an effect of causing more cross-fertilization.”

Squared Away plans to cover some JMR articles in a series of blog posts in coming weeks. Here’s a preview: …Learn More

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