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Money Matters Blog

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Psychology of Paying in Cash

We are the generation of efficiency. Technology is woven into our lives, and if it isn't digital, we likely aren't interested. Shopping and banking from the comfort of our couches is second nature, as is swiping our credit and debit cards without a second thought. But taking a step back and looking at how generations before us handled their finances may reap big rewards for our wallets.

In the days of my grandparents, buying on credit wasn't embraced — unlike today, where going into debt for what we want is often the social norm. My papa paid in cash. If he didn't have the cash, he went without or saved until he did.

We frequently hear about methods that can help us climb out of debt, such as the envelope system. Though many think it's an old-fashioned way of thought, paying in cash is a tried and true system for getting out of debt. It turns out, there is a lot of psychology behind paying with green. We really do spend more with credit.

Feel the pain
Picture yourself on a road trip, tired of driving and craving a break. You stop at a convenience store for a stretch and a bite. Opening your wallet, you have a credit card. With a quick swipe of the card, you've purchased a Diet Coke, two candy bars and some Fig Newtons, cause the figs count as fruit, right? Now rewind and imagine only a $100 bill in your wallet. What's your first thought? Often our reaction is, "I don't want to break this big bill for a small purchase."

For many, paying in cash can be slightly painful, thus limiting spending. In a set of studies published in the Journal of Consumer Research, researchers noted that our method of payment can affect our impulse purchases. When we see the cash leaving our hands, we don't part with it as easily as if we were swiping plastic. Additionally, the larger the bills we carry, the less likely we are to make unnecessary purchases. The study suggests that the emotional connection of paying in cash could reduce our impulse purchases, helping our budgets (and perhaps our waistlines, too).

Always leave home without it

So we've determined that it's easier to part with our money using credit, but it turns out, we're also willing to pay more. Consumers who intend to use credit for a big purchase are often more focused on the aesthetics and features of a product, while those holding cash for payment paid far more attention to the price, according to a study by Promothesh Chatterjee and Randall Rose. The physical act of handing over our hard-earned cash directly connects our purchase to our budget in our minds. Using plastic is a more abstract action because the effects on your budget aren't immediate. Additionally, study participants who paid with credit were unable to recall the purchase price of the product in hindsight.

Considering these psychological factors, how can this help us get a handle on our budget? Try your own experiment. Choose a week and review your spending, including convenience store stops, dining, online purchases, and everything else. Make a note of how much you shelled out. Now commit to paying only in cash for the next week – be brave and leave all plastic at home. Take note of how your thoughts on purchasing shift, and tally your spending at the end of the week. You might just find that paying in cash may be the best budget wrangler of all.

Photo by 401(K) 2012 via cc.

By Erin Pittman Copyright 2014 brass Media, Inc.

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