Pocketmint

small change toward a rich life
8
October
2012

The credit card rewards system is gaming you

Warnings against credit cards, while common, are almost always of the ‘don’t carry a balance’ variety. Over and over, we are told that as long as we pay off your balance each month and avoid fees and interest charges, we’ll come out ahead.

girl grimacing, holding Citibank MasterCard in her teethI’ve noticed that bloggers in particular love to trumpet the advantages of rewards cards — perhaps in part because they make money with referral fees — but also because they can look like a good deal for the consumer, on the surface.

I mean, everyone has to spend some amount of money each month, no matter how frugal they are or how tight their budget. And if you’re going to spend money, you might as well get a discount for it — a couple of percent in cash back, or Amazon gift cards, or frequent flier miles. Right?

Wrong.

•   •   •

Mind you, this is exactly what I’ve been doing for years. After paying off our enormous credit card debt, I picked one cash-back rewards card to keep using. Later I split our purchases between that card and a debit card from our high yield checking account. Everything passes through one of those cards. Cash spending is almost unheard-of; we typically go years at a time without hitting an ATM. Even with our currently circumscribed expenses, we still get a few hundred dollars from this strategy each year.

Recently, however, I’ve become convinced that this is a not such a good idea.

•   •   •

You can’t read very much in the field of consumer psychology without running across the fact that people who use credit cards spend more than people who pay in cash. This has been generally accepted both among researchers and within the industry since the late 1970s. By the late 1980s scientists had proven that this was not a merely correlative effect — that credit cards actually cause people to spend more, rather than that cards are used by people who are naturally higher spenders.

For the last thirty-plus years, research and debate has largely centered around determining the reason for this phenomenon. No single clear answer has emerged.

Rather, it’s evident that there is no single reason, but several. Roughly a handful — depending on how you choose to divide things up — of different psychological processes are contributing to what is now called simply ‘the credit-card effect’. To make things even more complicated, not every factor applies to every person or in every circumstance, which has led to some confusion as some studies seemed at first to contradict other findings.

There’s enough research out there for at least a half-dozen meaty blog posts, so for now I’m going to focus on just the one phenomenon that I found most surprising.

•   •   •

door full of credit card logosAll the way back in 1986, before I was even old enough to have a credit card, a consumer psychologist named Richard Feinberg conducted a series of four experiments that showed that a credit card logo alone was enough to increase spending. In two experiments, he had subjects flip through a binder containing images of consumer products (taken from mail order catalogs) and write down how much they would be willing to pay for each item.

Half of the subjects followed these directives while sitting at a table containing a pile of MasterCard paraphernalia — door signs and replicas of credit cards — ostensibly left over from a prior experiment. The other half sat at a bare table.

Here are the average amounts (1986 dollars) that were offered for each item in one of the studies:

Product Logo absent Logo present Increase
Toaster $  21.50 $  67.33 213%
Black-and-white TV $  67.00 $ 136.92 104%
Lamp $  34.42 $  47.17 37%
Digital clock $  18.08 $  31.25 73%
Pocket camera $  29.58 $  52.67 78%
Home stereo system $ 157.42 $ 191.17 21%
Dress $  25.42 $  49.42 94%
Mixer $  17.75 $  36.25 104%
Tent $   7.58 $  28.42 275%
Saw $  33.42 $  67.33 101%
Chess set $   8.67 $  25.75 197%
Cassette tape recorder $  26.50 $  42.75 61%

When I saw those numbers, I actually exclaimed out loud. Previously, when I’d read that ‘credit cards make you spend more’, I’d been imagining something small — a few percent, maybe. Not twenty percent more, and certainly not more than triple. Gah!

•   •   •

Now here’s the kicker: this ‘logo’ effect is the result of associative conditioning, so it doesn’t apply to everyone.

In fact, followup studies have indicated that credit cards facilitate spending only in people who have had positive experiences or associations with credit cards. “Numerous aversive experiences” — such as repeatedly paying large fees and high interest — had the opposite effect, and actually dampened spending. Media attitude also matters; in New Zealand, where the government has been waging a pervasive anti-debt advertising campaign for years, credit cards were recently (Lie et al., 2010) found to have a predominantly negative impact on spending as compared to cash.

credit card logos and USA flag on shop doorHere in the good ol’ U.S. of A., however, the cultural view of credit continues to be generally positive, and research from the past decade continues to show that credit cards facilitate higher spending. There are studies showing people spend significantly more at the grocery store, in restaurants, in auctions for sports tickets, for gifts, when giving to charity … pretty much anything where the amount has a discretionary aspect.

In other words, the more you like credit cards, the more dangerous they are. Which means, in turn, that all of us ace personal-finance types who think that we’ve been gaming the system and getting something for nothing … are ourselves being gamed.

•   •   •

Inevitably, most of you who are reading this will think something like, “Yeah, maybe that’s true for some people, but not me — I am too smart / sophisticated / disciplined to be affected.”

We all like to believe in our own superiority — so much so that social psychologists and behavioral economists talk about the superiority bias — also known as ‘illusory superiority’ or ‘the Lake Wobegon effect’, after Garrison Keillor’s fictional town where, impossibly, “all the children are above-average”. David McRaney explains it both amusingly and well in his book You Are Not So Smart:

The last thirty years’ worth of research shows just about all of us think we are more competent than our coworkers, more ethical than our friends, friendlier than the general public, more intelligent than our peers, more attractive than the average person, less prejudiced than people in our region, younger-looking than people the same age, better drivers than most people we know, better children than our siblings, and that we will live longer than the average lifespan. (As you just read that list, maybe you said to yourself, “No, I don’t think I’m better than everyone.” So you think you’re more honest with yourself than the average person? You are not so smart.) No one, it seems, believes he or she is part of the population contributing to the statistics generating averages.

On average, people who like credit cards spend more with them than they would if they used cash — a whole lot more.

Do you look upon your credit card with fear and loathing? If yes, you can perhaps safely ignore this particular effect (though not several other ones that also result in greater card spending).

ad for Target Visa card with happy womanOn the other hand, if you’re happily socking away your 3% cash back or collecting airline miles while paying off your balance each month, you are the very definition of ‘positive association’, and you can be sure that you are paying for those perks with higher credit card bills.

•   •   •

The saddest thing, to my mind, about the logo-exposure effect is that debit cards provide no relief. A 2011 study by Amy Moore and Michael Taylor confirmed this, showing that debit-card spending is just as dramatically elevated as credit-card spending when there’s a Visa or MasterCard logo present. So you can’t curb expenses just by switching to debit — you have to go all the way to actual cash. Since I like the convenience factor of plastic even more than I like the cash bonuses, this was not good news.

These days, I am meticulous in my financial responsibility. But I have been too humbled by my research into behavioral economics to believe that I am specially immune to these sorts of psychological effects. Also, frugality is more important to me than ever right now: Jak and I are both attempting to jump tracks into different careers and trying to support ourselves without full-time day jobs. The ability to keep costs down is critical to our success.

sign: Hoxton Street Monster Supplies / Cash OnlyWith that in mind, I’ve decided to see if I can give up credit and debit cards. I even convinced (a slightly reluctant but good-natured) Jak to try it along with me.

More about our personal anti-plastic experiment in my next post.

Have you ever given up credit cards? Would you consider switching to cash to save money? If not, why not?

Tip

28 responses

Subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

  1. Done by Forty says

    I think it’ll be a great case study to see how you transition to cash. Please keep us posted.

    It’s folly, I suppose, to think that we’re immune to the influence of credit & debit cards. That said, another approach might be to combat our psychological leanings towards higher spending. While we’re dealing with nuances of the mind, in the end a budget is a budget and the numbers, they don’t lie. If I put $250 cash in an envelope for groceries, or set a $250 grocery limit for my credit card this month, is there a difference? Might it be possible to mitigate the logo effect?

    • Karawynn says

      Short answer: yes, I believe (based on my scientific reading) that most unconscious psychological processes or biases can be at least slightly mitigated by conscious thought — but rarely if ever can they be eliminated. And in the particular case of credit spending there are so many different reflexes involved that there’s no way to compensate for more than a tiny fraction.

      Long answer: for example, budgets help but they only go so far. One, it’s much easier to, in the moment, go just a little over-budget with a credit card than with cash. Two, even if you stick to your $250, how do you know you wouldn’t be spending less than $250 if you were paying with cash?

      In fact, research shows that not only would you be spending less, you’d be buying different stuff with the money you do spend. People use very different decision-making processes and pay attention to different factors when paying with cash vs. credit. Credit users are more indulgent (for example, buying more junk food), focus on benefits rather than costs, and are more likely to buy status-related objects.

      I am an extremely self-aware person — it’s a core personality trait and a point of pride. I too initially reacted with a desire to learn to counterbalance any reflexive mental processes by virtue of deliberate situational orchestration.

      But like I said, the more deeply I’ve read in psychology and behavioral economics, the more humble I’ve gotten. As much as I would love to believe otherwise, the science is clear: as McRaney’s charming little book puts it, we are not so smart. Eventually I concluded that fighting this stuff head-on is a fool’s errand.

  2. Abby says

    Wow! This post came at just the right time. I’ve been thinking about getting a rewards card that I can use to charge monthly expenses and pay off each month. Now I’m not so sure. Looking forward to seeing how you guys do without your cards!

    • Karawynn says

      The ‘rewards cards are bad for you’ position is not a popular one — I’m half-braced for a withering backlash — but I’ve really come to believe that it’s the right one.

      If I can save just one person, it will all have been worth it! <grin>

  3. James says

    @Abby, you can still do both. Use a rewards card for monthly expenses – automated ones that don’t run through your hands. Having my gas bill auto pay itself through the credit card isn’t going to make me pay more for gas. /2c

  4. Dogs or Dollars says

    Understand the concern about a withering backlash. Good for you for tackling one of the sacred cows of ‘uber responsible personal finance’. Definitely thought provoking. As a diehard rewards card user myself, my heads spinning with potential ways to experiment with this. Do I do this? How can I possibly know if I do?

    I’ll be interested to see your results.

    • Karawynn says

      I’ve been gnawing on that very problem for a couple of months now, trying to think of a way to prove (or disprove) the effects on my own life. So far I’ve not come up with a way to create any kind of reasonably controlled experiment. There are just too many variables and the sample sizes are inherently too small.

      In the end, I decided that I believe scientific data more than I believe my own perceptions, so even if I can’t see the effect, I should behave as though it exists.

  5. Klaas says

    I’d be curious to see links and explanations for the other processes included in the “credit card effect”. The logo one is quite unconvincing to me as a reason to make the change you propose. Is the idea that you walk around a store involuntarily visualizing the credit card in your wallet? Or that a sign on the door triggers this effect? And has it been tried with other logos? Because a hypothesis that logos and promotional images in general increase willingness to spend would seem more relevant and also very consistent with how stores are designed.

    Even if I thought my cards were costing me more than they pay me, which I’m pretty confident is not the case, the next question would be whether it’s by enough to counteract the record-keeping and money management benefits.

    Also, are there any studies of the effect having a fat wad of $20s in your pocket has on your willingness to spend?

    PS. Came over from MMM’s comment section yesterday. Really liked your insurance posts. Welcome to my reader.

    • Karawynn says

      Welcome and glad to have you, Klaas!

      Regarding the logo exposure effect, what’s been proven is that the mere act of looking at the logo while taking the card out of your wallet, or seeing the logos on a web page, is sufficient to trigger the effect. Tip trays with credit logos in restaurants resulted in larger tips than blank trays. Signs at the register worked too. I don’t know about signs on the front door, but probably; I’m not sure if anyone’s specifically studied whether there’s a time limit to the effect. The grocery store studies, however, tend to suggest that the effect is persistent, as people who paid with credit had just made a series of decisions during their time in the store that resulted in higher totals and more indulgent/discretionary purchases.

      After spending 35-40 hours canvassing the body of scientific literature on the subject, I am absolutely convinced that rewards cards are costing you, me, and everyone more than they pay. It’s a hidden cost, which means people are reluctant to believe in it, but it’s real and it’s huge.

      The question of how much the record-keeping benefits are worth is a very individual one, but I decided it made no sense to use something for money-management purposes that was actively undermining my attempts to control my spending. :/ The main objective of my personal anti-card experiment will be to find a non-painful alternative.

      Cash actually has a dampening effect on spending in general, so cash of any amount is better than a credit or debit card. But obviously if you’re trying to curb spending, carrying a smaller total amount of cash will put a very real-world stop on your purchasing. Also, there’s a psychological reluctance to break larger bills, so you’re more likely to spend a fat wad of singles than a fat wad of twenties, and more likely to spend the twenties than hundreds.

      As far as the other credit card studies, I may return to them in future, especially if there’s a general clamor of interest. :) There are just so many fascinating and useful subjects I want to share and discuss, though, that I tend to mix it up, so it might be a while …

  6. mary w says

    I’ve never been a big credit card user. I use it every month but not every day or multiple times a day as many do. I don’t *think* that using a credit card by itself makes me spend more money. But the Internet combined with a credit card, boy howdy. Groupon, Amazon and couple more one-click and it’s done sites make it somehow seem free.

    You may find a few discounts using cash. My massage therapist and dentist both give me a slight discount for cash.

    • Karawynn says

      Mary, the behavioral econ term for what you’re experiencing there is the lack of ‘pain of payment’. I definitely need to devote a post to that concept at some point.

      Good point regarding discounts for cash — historically I haven’t looked for those opportunities and I should start. Jak is about to be due for a dental cleaning — I should see if I can negotiate that cost. :)

  7. Klaas says

    2 more questions:
    1. What if I go to Target with a list and buy exactly what’s on the list, at the cheapest per-unit price available? Have I fully defeated the credit card effect for that excursion? If not, how does it creep in?

    I’m not trying to belabor the argument, it’s just that I don’t see how the effect is supposed to work with decisions that are made fairly deliberately. And I think that the majority of my spending is less subject to impulse or immediate discretion than that example.

    2. Do you think you keep good enough records that you’ll be able to know whether switching to cash has made a difference in your spending?

    • Karawynn says

      I’m getting the impression that you’re really invested in your rewards card and I’m unlikely to be making a dent in your way of thinking about it, Klaas. :)

      If your regular shopping process is really to go to a store with a detailed list, never deviate in the slightest from that list, and choose only the items with the cheapest per-unit price regardless of any other preference … well, first of all, congratulations, you are in the top .00001% of shoppers for self-control. And yes, if you are able to keep doing that, I imagine you have mitigated a large portion of the credit-card premium.

      That said, here are a couple ways extra spending might creep in that I can think of offhand: 1) Since you’re expecting to pay with a card and not cash, you add more expensive or indulgent items when you’re making up the list. 2) In the store, you choose to buy larger quantities, which (especially in the case of perishables) costs you more money.

      Proving numerically that a switch to cash has saved me money (or not) is tricky, as I noted in my reply to Dogs or Dollars, above. The problem is not record-keeping (my spending records are thorough and detailed) but a matter of external variables and small sample size. (I’ll explain that statement in more detail in my next post.) So, although I will certainly run the numbers as scientifically as possible, and I’ll be curious to see whether there appears to be a spending reduction, said appearance would not be conclusive evidence of the card effect — nor would the apparent lack mean it’s truly absent.

      As I said, my behavioral economics studies have been deeply humbling, with the result that I trust rigorous science more than I trust my own perceptions. For that reason, the main point of this cardless experiment will be about finding a workable alternative system, rather than proving or disproving the phenomenon.

      • Klaas says

        You might be right about that. :)
        I still smile when I think about the time I managed to run an $11,000 tuition bill through a card paying 5% with a $4,000 credit limit. Could be I’m the poster boy for “positive associations”.

        The other factor in play for me in this case is my general skepticism of psychological research. Having majored in physics and philosophy, I have problems with it from multiple directions. Not that I haven’t seen any that I thought was good (the anchoring stuff is quite convincing), but I’ve also encountered plenty that I thought fell way short on experiment design and/or way overreached in drawing conclusions.

        • Karawynn says

          Re your tuition payment: heh. :) Nicely done.

          Psychological studies are sometimes flawed, yes, and it makes sense to maintain some skepticism about new findings without good replication. (There seems to be a bit of a storm brewing in the field about experiment design and results replication — see this article in Nature by one of my favorite science journalists, Ed Yong, and also the open letter from Daniel Kahneman on the subject.)

          However, there are certain areas where the cumulative research has been solid and the findings are robust, and the existence of credit-card premiums appears to be one of those, with dozens of independent replications over a period of decades.

          Statistically speaking, I find that despite any research flaws in the field, broad skepticism doesn’t serve; better to occasionally react to a single effect that turns out to be false than to disregard dozens or hundreds of accurate phenomena.

  8. Amy says

    Maybe I’m just resistent to the idea that I am swayed by a logo, but I feel my spending is fairly disciplined. I realize my buget could be tightened, but my current level of spending is by no means extravagant. Any non-essential items are specfically budgeted so their purchase isn’t exceeding any limits. I do make use of a rewards card, but also track spending obsessively. My lastest strategy to make full use of my rewards credit card is to purchase gift cards in the amount of my budget for the month and then use the gift cards to spend. Once the balance on the gift cards is wiped out, it’s time to stay home and quit spending. So far, I’ve had small balances left over that I’m hording for a rainy day treat (although I will be attentive and eventually spend it).

    • Karawynn says

      You sound much like me, Amy — my budget is tight, my spending is low, and I too track everything obsessively. :}

      Of course, the very fact that I don’t spend much means that I get only a small benefit from my rewards card. And similarly, small increases in spending would still be proportionally large relevant to my budget. So I thought it was worth trying to find a way around credit cards in my own life, even though the actual dollar amounts may be small. YMMV. :)

  9. Bill says

    Just a thought coming from a prior Small Business Owner. At the end of the day the cost of my product is determined, in large part, by how much it cost me to produce, market, and sell. If these cards are giving benefits in the 2-5% neighborhood, they are getting that from somewhere. I know that in our small business we were paying about 2% to process MC and Visa, and as much as 3.5% to process AmEx and Discover. Debit cards were less or more depending on the size of the sale because they were a fixed fee rather than a simple percentage. Consequently we had to charge roughly 3% more for our products. Based on this very small sample group of one, the American consumer is spending 3% more for everything that they buy simply to pay for the convenience of the plastic and the benefits (air miles, whatever). The obvious solution is to negotiate for a cash discount of the same 3%, but in the agreement that we had to sign to have a CC processing capacity we agreed not to give cash discounts. The CC companies do not want cash discounts to become a pervasive part of doing business. I’m rambling, but what I’m saying is that those rewards aren’t free, we consumers are paying for them “at the pump”. Problem is, if you opt out of the CC/Debit card system you get to subsidize the cost of doing business and thus indirectly those nifty benefits that the CC user gets as an incentive.

    • Karawynn says

      Yes, this is a whole other area I’ve studied but didn’t try to cover in this one article. I may come back to this in a future post, but briefly:

      It’s a classic Tragedy of the Commons scenario — all customers are paying higher prices because of the costs to the merchants of accepting credit cards, but as individuals we can only opt out of the benefits, not the costs. The only way out of this dilemma that I can see is for those costs to become transparent and internalized instead of hidden and externalized — which means charging different prices for cash and credit.

      If you actually had to promise no cash discounts, that would have been unusual; typically the agreement is that you are allowed cash discounts but not credit surcharges — an issue of framing. But aside from gas stations, businesses mostly haven’t taken advantage of that — to everyone’s detriment, I think.

      There is a faint glimmer of hope from the recent antitrust settlement, which frees up businesses to add surcharges for credit (and actually call them that). But a) merchants may be too frightened of customer reactions to actually do it, b) ten states have their own laws against it, and c) apparently for the 50% of businesses that also take AmEx there’s a Catch-22 that effectively makes surcharges impossible anyway. /headdesk

      Anyway, the commons dilemma is one of the reasons I was so taken by the discovery that there is likely a direct benefit for the individual to giving up credit cards that exceeds the financial rewards one is losing by doing so.

  10. RG says

    interesting. I can see where atm visits would curtail spending, esp for lunch or spontaneous purchases. also, since I don’t like to carry more than abt $100 on me, it would force a decision point if I have to get more cash out. I can also see where credit card purchases are almost inherently larger, irrational choices, tickets and dinners and airline flights. would paying cash cut down my gas bill or my grocery bill? conversely, if I charge my vegetables will I eat more (or just buy more)

    • Karawynn says

      As I understand the science, you might buy more vegetables, although the effect would be less than if you were buying something indulgent, like cookies. I see nothing that indicates you would be more likely to eat vegetables as a result of putting them on a card. Bummer, huh?

      Regarding utility bills: flat charges (as for garbage) are obviously not subject to fluctuation and would be immune. To the extent that you are making choices (running water, leaving lights on, etc.) that affect your utility costs, there might be an effect — not so much due to logo exposure as to one of the other phenomena I didn’t cover here, which has to do with reduced salience in different form factors. However, this is already in play with (for example) online bill-paying, so that even if there is a measureable effect, the only way to counter it would be to go stand in line each month and pay with cash.

      TL;DR: go ahead and pay utility bills with credit cards, if you are so inclined, so long as you pay the card off in full each month.

  11. RG says

    Thinking about this some more, is it bad to spend more money? first, my shopping trips are dictated by running low on food, so maybe I would shop less often. second, are those impulse buys things that enhance your life? this week I debated cookies and didn’t buy them, but did splurge on asparagus, the last of the farm tomatoes, fennel, and beets. the last cookies I remember buying was 1.5 years ago, half-price, fancy tea cookies that were so good I hunted down a copycat recipe. the store bought ones were better and savored, but also at age 42 to find something “new” is pretty special. I also wonder if more grocery store splurges= fewer restaurant trips.

    I understand the hedonic adaptation concept, but I remember the lean student years, and am no stranger to puritan ethics. That way madness lies. theater tickets are a similar issue, that they’re best bought well in advance. otherwise, I won’t go, even though I will be glad once I get myself together and go. I’m not talking Costco quantities, but if credit cards encourage variety, that’s a good thing.

    • Karawynn says

      RG — could you explain more what you mean by ‘that way madness lies’? I wasn’t following your point in the second paragraph.

      There’s evidence that people buy more junk food when paying with cards than with cash, and also that they buy more status-conscious objects (and pay more for them) — designer jeans instead of non-designer jeans, for example.

      Both of those tendencies go directly against the life I’d personally like to lead: I want to be more healthy and less status-seeking in my consumptive choices. This is not at all the same thing as ‘never have any fun’ — it just means I would like to choose my indulgences in ways that line up with my ethics and personal philosophies. And credit card use is apparently working against me there.

  12. Heather says

    One of the biggest challenges to this would be the growing number of places (at least that I frequent) that have gone cashless. For example, UW’s food services on campus are mostly cashless, with very few exceptions. They only accept Visa, MasterCard, or Husky Card (which ultimately equates to a debit card since it is a loadable account card).

    Now, I know the smartest thing would be to simply bring breakfast and lunch to work every day, but in reality, that’s just not feasible for my situation. I do have a giant Costco box of granola bars in my desk for snacks, but I don’t have the facilities at work for reasonable meals. I load a monthly budget on my Husky Card and only use that to purchase food and drinks, but even so, I am forced to use a card rather than cash.

    I have also noticed this trend in other places, such as concerts, festivals, etc., where cash is not welcome. As we move more and more towards a cashless society, I wonder how this effect will change (if at all)?

    • Karawynn says

      That’s a real bummer about the UW cafeteria, Heather. And really, no fridge or microwave in your building? That’s even worse. Bad, bad UW!

      So far I’ve only run into one place where cash was unacceptable: the Costco gas pump. I’m curious to see if I find any more …



content & design © karawynn long