IDEAS home Printed from https://ideas.repec.org/a/inm/ormksc/v17y1998i1p4-28.html
   My bibliography  Save this article

The Red and the Black: Mental Accounting of Savings and Debt

Author

Listed:
  • Drazen Prelec

    (Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, E56-320, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138)

  • George Loewenstein

    (Department of Social and Decision Sciences, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15213)

Abstract

In the standard economic account of consumer behavior the cost of a purchase takes the form of a reduction in future utility when expenditures that otherwise could have been made are forgone. The reality of consumer hedonics is different. When people make purchases, they often experience an immediate , which can undermine the pleasure derived from consumption. The ticking of the taxi meter, for example, reduces one's pleasure from the ride. We propose a “double-entry” mental accounting theory that describes the nature of these reciprocal interactions between the pleasure of consumption and the pain of paying and draws out their implications for consumer behavior and hedonics. A central assumption of the model, which we call , is that consumption that has already been paid for can be enjoyed as if it were free and that the pain associated with payments made prior to consumption (but not after) is buffered by thoughts of the benefits that the payments will finance. Another important concept is , which refers to the degree to which consumption calls to mind thoughts of payment, and vice versa. Some financing methods, such as credit cards, tend to weaken coupling, whereas others, such as cash payment, produce tight coupling. Our model makes a variety of predictions that are at variance with economic formulations. Contrary to the standard prediction that people will finance purchases to minimize the present value of payments, our model predicts strong —that they should prefer to prepay for consumption or to get paid for work after it is performed. Such pay-before sequences confer hedonic benefits because consumption can be enjoyed without thinking about the need to pay for it in the future. Likewise, when paying beforehand, the pain of paying is mitigated by thoughts of future consumption benefits. Contrary to the economic prediction that consumers should prefer to pay, at the margin, for what they consume, our model predicts that consumers will find it less painful to pay for, and hence will prefer, flat-rate pricing schemes such as unlimited Internet access at a fixed monthly price, even if it involves paying more for the same usage. Other predictions concern spending patterns with cash, charge, or credit cards, and preferences for the earmarking of purchases. We test these predictions in a series of surveys and in a conjoint-like analysis that pitted our double-entry mental accounting model against a standard discounting formulation and another benchmark that did not incorporate hedonic interactions between consumption and payments. Our model provides a better fit of the data for 60% of the subjects; the discounting formulation provides a better fit for only 29% of the subjects (even when allowing for positive and negative discount rates). The pain of paying, we argue, plays an important role in consumer self-regulation, but is hedonically costly. From a hedonic perspective the ideal situation is one in which payments are tightly coupled to consumption (so that paying evokes thoughts about the benefits being financed) but consumption is decoupled from payments (so that consumption does not evoke thoughts about payment). From an efficiency perspective, however, it is important for consumers to be aware of what they are paying for consumption. This creates a tension between hedonic efficiency and what we call . Various institutional arrangements, such as financing of public parks through taxes or usage fees, play into this tradeoff. A producer developing a pricing structure for their product or service should be aware of these two conflicting objectives, and should try to devise a structure that reconciles them.

Suggested Citation

  • Drazen Prelec & George Loewenstein, 1998. "The Red and the Black: Mental Accounting of Savings and Debt," Marketing Science, INFORMS, vol. 17(1), pages 4-28.
  • Handle: RePEc:inm:ormksc:v:17:y:1998:i:1:p:4-28
    as

    Download full text from publisher

    File URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1287/mksc.17.1.4
    Download Restriction: no

    References listed on IDEAS

    as
    1. Richard J. Herrnstein & Drazen Prelec, 1991. "Melioration: A Theory of Distributed Choice," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 5(3), pages 137-156, Summer.
    2. Richard H. Thaler, 2008. "Mental Accounting and Consumer Choice," Marketing Science, INFORMS, vol. 27(1), pages 15-25, 01-02.
    3. Kridel, Donald J. & Lehman, Dale E. & Weisman, Dennis L., 1993. "Option value, telecommunications demand, and policy," Information Economics and Policy, Elsevier, vol. 5(2), pages 125-144, July.
    4. Shefrin, Hersh M & Thaler, Richard H, 1988. "The Behavioral Life-Cycle Hypothesis," Economic Inquiry, Western Economic Association International, vol. 26(4), pages 609-643, October.
    5. Gilboa, Itzhak, 1989. "Expectation and Variation in Multi-period Decisions," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 57(5), pages 1153-1169, September.
    6. Feinberg, Richard A, 1986. " Credit Cards as Spending Facilitating Stimuli: A Conditioning Interpretation," Journal of Consumer Research, Oxford University Press, vol. 13(3), pages 348-356, December.
    7. Ausubel, Lawrence M, 1991. "The Failure of Competition in the Credit Card Market," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 81(1), pages 50-81, March.
    8. Loewenstein, George, 1987. "Anticipation and the Valuation of Delayed Consumption," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 97(387), pages 666-684, September.
    Full references (including those not matched with items on IDEAS)

    More about this item

    Keywords

    Mental Accounting; Framing; Consumer Choice;

    Statistics

    Access and download statistics

    Corrections

    All material on this site has been provided by the respective publishers and authors. You can help correct errors and omissions. When requesting a correction, please mention this item's handle: RePEc:inm:ormksc:v:17:y:1998:i:1:p:4-28. See general information about how to correct material in RePEc.

    For technical questions regarding this item, or to correct its authors, title, abstract, bibliographic or download information, contact: (Mirko Janc). General contact details of provider: http://edirc.repec.org/data/inforea.html .

    If you have authored this item and are not yet registered with RePEc, we encourage you to do it here. This allows to link your profile to this item. It also allows you to accept potential citations to this item that we are uncertain about.

    If CitEc recognized a reference but did not link an item in RePEc to it, you can help with this form .

    If you know of missing items citing this one, you can help us creating those links by adding the relevant references in the same way as above, for each refering item. If you are a registered author of this item, you may also want to check the "citations" tab in your RePEc Author Service profile, as there may be some citations waiting for confirmation.

    Please note that corrections may take a couple of weeks to filter through the various RePEc services.

    IDEAS is a RePEc service hosted by the Research Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis . RePEc uses bibliographic data supplied by the respective publishers.