It is generally accepted that, when you go out shopping for something, having a budget in mind is a very good idea. It’s not the amount you’re absolutely, stringently limited to – not like your limit is $50 because you only have $50 in your bank account – but it’s the amount that you are willing to pay for what you want, various factors considered. It might be an absolute maximum (e.g. nothing above $100) or it might be a general target range (e.g. something around $20-30), but either way, you’re using a self-imposed price restraint to limit what you spend.
Counter-intuitively, it seems that that sort of approach actually seems to increase what you spend. In the paper ‘When budgeting backfires: How self-imposed price restraints can increase spending’ (2012), authors Larson and Hamilton report that across six experiments they consistently found that self-imposing a budget when making a purchase decision caused people to have an increased preference for higher-priced items, regardless of whether the budget was an absolute maximum or a general target range.
It seems that imposing a price restraint draws your attention to that general price range and you tend to ignore items whose prices are too far away from the value you’ve decided on. For example, you might say you don’t want to pay more than $100 for a pair of jeans. However, setting that maximum price restraint causes you to ignore the options with considerably lower prices, so you might ignore a $60 pair of jeans, whereas if you hadn’t set a budget you might have considered the $60 pair (and they might have turned out to be exactly what you wanted). Just by setting a budget, you’re putting blinkers on and only paying attention to a restricted range of items that are reasonably close to your price restraint. Unfortunately, this restricted range of items then goes on to warp your judgement of the items’ prices and quality.
The experiments showed that there was a scaling effect on perceived quality of that more restricted range of items, because when you restrict your appraisal to a smaller range with less context, it makes the differences between the items in that small range seem bigger. The consequence of this is that the lowest quality item suddenly seems much more low quality than it otherwise would have, and that in turn leads you to prefer the higher quality items in your small range. And what does higher quality mean? Somewhat loosely and generally, it means higher prices. (And it is rather loosely and generally true, if that graph I’ve previously posted is anything to go by).
The selection of that small range of items also means that prices become less meaningful. If you’ve set your budget to $100, and you’ve ended up with several pairs of jeans to choose from that are all in the $90-100 price range, then the price isn’t going to make much difference. You’re going to be paying around $100, give or take a bit, so price isn’t particularly informative for making that decision – no single price is that radically different from your initial budget of $100. As a result, you go back to making a decision, as best you can, based on quality. And as I said above, the differences in quality seem greater in that restricted range of items, and you end up preferring the better quality items, which on average means higher prices.
As always, there are a lot of other factors to consider (how well a person can evaluate quality, how much emphasis a person places on quality vs. aesthetic value, how well quality and price correlate in different groups of consumable goods such as clothes or food or electronics or furniture, etc). Still, it seems like a pretty robust finding – price restraints unfortunately seem to draw your attention to a higher price range and then distort it while it’s there.
But how do you counteract the apparent “costs” of having a budget? Not having a budget doesn’t seem like a better alternative to having a budget, but as the authors of the paper speculate, there’s a wider context of budgeting that’s more encouraging. If you plan your spending in general, keep track of your earnings and expenditures, and engage in some thoughtful and practical budget-planning and monitoring, you’ll probably still come out on top, regardless of a pair of slightly-more-expensive-than-necessary-or-intended jeans. Need some motivation/inspiration? Check out what Lin has to say about her approach to budgeting.