Mental accounting

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A concept first named by Richard Thaler, mental accounting (or psychological accounting) attempts to describe the process whereby people code, categorize and evaluate economic outcomes.[1] People may have multiple mental accounts for the same kind of resource. A person may use different monthly budgets for grocery shopping and eating out at restaurants, for example, and constraint one kind of purchase when its budget has run out while not constraining the other kind of purchase, even though both expenditures draw on the same fungible resource (income).[2] Similarly, supermarket shoppers spend less money at the market when paying with cash than with their debit cards (and credit cards), even though both cash and debit cards draw on the same economic resource.[3]

One detailed application of mental accounting, the behavioral life cycle hypothesis (Shefrin & Thaler 1988), posits that people mentally frame assets as belonging to either current income, current wealth or future income and this has implications for their behavior as the accounts are largely non-fungible and marginal propensity to consume out of each account is different.

Mental accounting, utility, value and transaction[edit]

In mental accounting theory, framing means that the way a person subjectively frames a transaction in their mind will determine the utility they receive or expect. This concept is similarly used in prospect theory, and many mental accounting theorists adopt that theory as the value function in their analysis.

Another very important concept used to understand mental accounting is that of modified utility function. There are two values attached to any transaction - acquisition value and transaction value. Acquisition value is the money that one is ready to part with for physically acquiring some good. Transaction value is the value one attaches to having a good deal. If the price that one is paying is equal to the mental reference price for the good, the transaction value is zero. If the price is lower than the reference price, the transaction utility is positive.

Mental accounting cost[edit]

More generally, a mental accounting cost or mental transaction cost, a kind of transaction cost, is the cost of making a useful decision, especially of a consumer making a useful decision to buy, and may set a lower bound on useful price granularity in a market.

Fallacies and biases[edit]

Mental accounting is subject to many logical fallacies and cognitive biases.

Mental accounting and consumption[edit]

People are influenced in their consumption decisions by the mental account that comes to mind when deciding whether to consume their resources.[1] Spending a fixed amount of a resource, such as 5 minutes of one's time or $5 of one's money is more psychological painful when that expenditure is drawn from a smaller rather than a larger mental account. People consider expenditures of money like a cup of coffee or slice of pizza, for example, to be more painful when paying with them from the cash in their wallet than when paying for them out of their checking account. This influences their propensity to purchase goods and services. In a study by Morewedge, Holtzman, and Epley (2007), shoppers buying lunch at a local market primed to think of the money in their bank accounts and investments spend 36% more than did shoppers primed to think of the cash in their wallet.[3]

Mental accounting of credit cards and cash payments[edit]

Another example of mental accounting is the greater willingness to pay for goods when using credit cards than cash,[4] and buy more goods when paying with a debit or credit card than with cash.[3] If people use credit card to pay for tickets to a sporting event, they will tend to be willing to pay more than if they make their bid with cash. This phenomenon is also related to transaction decoupling, the separation of when a good is acquired and when it is actually paid for.

See also[edit]


  • Benartzi, Shlomo; Thaler, Richard H. (1995). "Myopic Loss Aversion and the Equity Premium Puzzle". The Quarterly Journal of Economics 110 (1): 73–92. doi:10.2307/2118511. 
  • Kahneman, Daniel; Knetsch, Jack L.; Thaler, Richard H. (1990). "Experimental Tests of the Endowment Effect and the Coase Theorem". Journal of Political Economy 98 (6): 1325–1348. doi:10.1086/261737. 
  • Kahneman, Daniel; Knetsch, Jack L.; Thaler, Richard H. (1991). "Anomalies: The Endowment Effect, Loss Aversion, and Status Quo Bias". Journal of Economic Perspectives 5 (1): 193–206. doi:10.1257/jep.5.1.193. 
  • Shefrin, Hersh M.; Thaler, Richard H. (1988). "The behavioral life-cycle hypothesis". Economic Inquiry 26 (4): 609–643. doi:10.1111/j.1465-7295.1988.tb01520.x. 
  • Thaler, Richard H. (1980). "Toward a positive theory of consumer choice". Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 1 (1): 39–60. doi:10.1016/0167-2681(80)90051-7. 
  • Thaler, Richard H. (1985). "Mental Accounting and Consumer Choice". Marketing Science 4 (3): 199–214. doi:10.1287/mksc.4.3.199. 
  • Thaler, Richard H. (1990). "Anomalies: Saving, Fungibility, and Mental Accounts". Journal of Economic Perspectives 4 (1): 193–205. doi:10.1257/jep.4.1.193. 
  • Thaler, Richard H. (1999). "Mental accounting matters". Journal of Behavioral Decision Making 12 (3): 183–206. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1099-0771(199909)12:3<183::AID-BDM318>3.0.CO;2-F. 
  • Tversky, Amos; Kahneman, Daniel (1981). "The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice". Science 211 (4481): 453–458. doi:10.1126/science.7455683. PMID 7455683. 
  1. ^ a b Heath, Chip; Soll, Jack B. (1996-06-01). "Mental Budgeting and Consumer Decisions". Journal of Consumer Research 23 (1): 40–52. 
  2. ^ Cheema, Amar; Soman, Dilip (2006-01-01). "Malleable Mental Accounting: The Effect of Flexibility on the Justification of Attractive Spending and Consumption Decisions". Journal of Consumer Psychology 16 (1): 33–44. doi:10.1207/s15327663jcp1601_6. 
  3. ^ a b c Morewedge, Carey K.; Holtzman, Leif; Epley, Nicholas (2007-12-01). "Unfixed Resources: Perceived Costs, Consumption, and the Accessible Account Effect". Journal of Consumer Research 34 (4): 459–467. doi:10.1086/518540. ISSN 0093-5301. 
  4. ^ Prelec, Drazen; Simester, Duncan (2001-02-01). "Always Leave Home Without It: A Further Investigation of the Credit-Card Effect on Willingness to Pay". Marketing Letters 12 (1): 5–12. doi:10.1023/A:1008196717017. ISSN 0923-0645.