Young Adults Adrift in E-Spending Ocean

Collectibles purchased online range from Russel Wright dinnerware (shown here) to songs and video. Source: backhomeagainvintage.

Credit cards and malls are so yesterday.

Young adults move easily among an array of online payment and shopping options unimaginable a decade ago: PayPal, Groupon, telephone bill payment, smartphone apps that pay for store purchases, online retailers galore, automatic bank payments, and online gift cards.

Technology is moving fast: Amazon recently released an app called “Flow” that will recognize a product — from a book to a jar of Nutella — and then send the price, user reviews and a “Buy It Now” option to your smartphone.

It’s time to take stock of how easy it has become to overspend and how difficult saving is for young adults weaned on e-transactions.

“When it doesn’t feel like money, people don’t treat it like money,” said Priya Raghubir, a professor at the New York University Stern School of Business, neatly summing up her 2008 paper, “Monopoly Money: The Effect on Payment Coupling and Form on Spending Behavior.”

It’s extremely hard for young adults to change their behavior, “because they aren’t used to any other way of paying,” said Raghubir, 48, who remembers the old paper-transaction days when cash was king and checks were reserved for the big purchases.

Marcus Ealy, 28, is trying to stay on budget for the new year but admits a weakness for shopping online for clothes that fit his 6-foot-4 frame – $650 last year.  The singer-songwriter and student adviser at Orlando’s Full Sail University, where he earned a master’s in entertainment business, wants to save up for things that will advance his career, such as voice lessons or coaching on his stage presence.

“I am still in the process where I’m learning the best approach to” handling money, he said.  [This blog writer’s weakness is 1940s and ‘50s dinnerware designed by Russel Wright, who felt that mass production didn’t have to be ugly; a $350 eBay shopping spree last summer was my only diversion during an impossible deadline for a project.]

Raghubir and coauthor Joydeep Srivastava conducted one experiment that showed how credit cards separate young adults like Ealy from their money.  Students given cash to buy groceries were more price-conscious about each item than if they paid with scrip, which could be used only in the store.  In other words, the scrip was less real and more easy to spend.  In a related experiment, students were more eager to spend a $1 gift certificate for Starburst candy, which felt like “play money,” than a dollar bill they were given.

Young adults in the midst of an e-transaction, Raghubir said, don’t experience “that pang of pain that would kick in that would stop and make them consider: should I be making this purchase?”

Raghubir may study these insidious effects, but she isn’t immune.  Since New York City taxis started accepting credit cards, she succumbs more often to taking a $20-plus cab ride from her downtown office near Washington Square Park to her Upper West Side home.

“You can be aware when you’re doing it, and even then it can be difficult to stop it,” she said.

4 Responses to Young Adults Adrift in E-Spending Ocean

  1. LuAnn Smith says:

    I haven’t used a credit card in over two years and my life is so much better. I actually love having a budget and sticking to it. For me, every time I made a purchase with that credit card it put a little dent in my self esteem. It really is about self awareness. Thanks for a great article.

  2. Chris says:

    Companies like Amazon and other major e-commerce businesses often target people with credit cards, particularly those who are younger. Very good article.

  3. Marcie says:

    This ease of online buying is another issue that we need to build into good financial education programs. Awareness of such behavior tendencies is the first step in achieving control over them. Great article!

  4. Miles says:

    Since youth are the most avid users of the modern technologies, it only makes sense to market to them online. If you make it as easy as possible for them to spend online then the more revenue for the big dogs. Great article.