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Originally published Saturday, July 6, 2013 at 8:03 PM

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Money tip: Research reveals deep reasons why we spend

We consumers are not always rational and can be tricked by sellers. Here are some recent findings from researchers that may help you hang on to your money.

Chicago Tribune

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Would you pay 50 percent more for “organic” firewood? Would you be more willing to buy a used refrigerator if it had an “attractive enamel-coated ferromagnetic exterior?” Would you be more likely to buy juice from a server with a British accent?

Of course, all firewood is organic, magnets stick to many refrigerators, and the desire for juice should be unrelated to a seller’s accent.

Still, we consumers are not always rational and can be tricked by sellers. We sometimes open our wallets for marketing gimmicks like these examples from a message board posting on Reddit.com.

There’s a whole area of academic study about consumer behavior that examines not what we buy but why. Some findings lend insights to our own buying habits. Recognizing them in ourselves just might help us become better consumers.

Here are some recent findings from the halls of academia.

Lump your savings

Common personal-finance advice is to maintain several different accounts, a vacation account, new-car fund or Christmas club, to help people save more money.

But one group of researchers has a suggestion for people trying to spend less and save more: Consolidate multiple bank accounts into one.

Individuals will save more and spend less when they have a single account, according to research by Promothesh Chatterjee at the Kansas University School of Business and fellow researchers at the University of Utah. Their findings appeared in a recent edition of the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

Multiple accounts create a “vagueness” about how much money you really have, making it easier to justify expenditures you shouldn’t make, researchers found.

A single account makes it clear how much money you have in total and what you’ll have left if you spend some of it.

Wanting vs. owning

Materialistic consumers might get more pleasure from desiring products than actually owning them. Yet they are willing to overspend and go into debt because they think future purchases will transform their lives.

They tend to believe an acquisition will improve their relationships with other people, enhance the way they feel about themselves, enable them to have more pleasure in life, and allow them to carry out life tasks more effectively.

They’re often wrong. The high is usually short-lived. That’s the upshot of research by Marsha Richins of the University of Missouri.

“Learning that acquisition is less pleasurable than anticipating a purchase may help (people) delay purchases until they are better able to afford them,” Richins writes.

Childhood influences

How wealthy your family was as a child shapes how you respond to economic stress later in life, contends a team of researchers in a study published by the Association of Psychological Science, “When the Economy Falters, Do People Spend or Save?”

Faced with economic crises as adults, those who grew up with plentiful resources tend to become more risk-averse and slow down spending.

But people who grow up in poorer environments tend to spend money faster during those times, acting impulsively, taking risks and succumbing to temptations.

The reason probably traces to our human ancestors who would try to attract reproductive mates before they died from the hardship, researchers say.

“If you are from a poorer environment and hit with a recession, you might think your chances of weathering the storm aren’t great, so you put your resources into other outcomes that are more tied to reproductive pursuits and interpersonal displays intended to show off, with things like jewelry and cars,” said one of the researchers, Joshua Ackerman of the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“That might seem foolish from an economic perspective, but this behavior can be deeply rational from an evolutionary perspective.”

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