A $20 bill has the exact same purchasing power whether brand spanking new out of the local ATM as it does if it's been sitting in a piggy bank crumpled up and played with by a 2 year old toddler eating candied apples. Yet research published in the Journal of Consumer Research, Inc. by Faubrizio Di Muro and Theodore J. Noseworthy illustrates that we do not treat those two bills the same. In their research paper, Money Isn't Everything, but It Helps If It Doesn't Look Used: How The Physical Appearance of Money Influences Spending, the authors identify three ways the physical appearance of money impacts us.
The first finding suggests that we spend money more freely when bills are worn and spend less when we have crisp bills. The reason we look to get rid of dirty money implied in the research? We have a tendency to view dirty, worn money as "contaminated" and we want to divest ourselves of that contaminant as quickly as possible. Further, we actually take pride in carrying clean, crisp bills and having these available to us for use in social situations (more on this in finding three.)
The second finding suggests that this dirty money phenomenon is so strong it can counteract another spending phenomenon. This other spending phenomenon, studied elsewhere, illustrates that, given the choice, we use smaller bills and exact change to make a purchase instead of breaking a larger bill. Yet, when encountered with a dirty larger bill and clean smaller bills, we have a tendency to break the larger bill in order to get rid of the contaminant!
The third finding may be the most interesting of all. This finding suggests that while we initially want to hold on to clean, crisp bills and will spend less when carrying these bills; we will actually spend crisp bills more freely when in a situation where we are being socially observed. We want to show off our crisp bills that we've held on to in a social context. We become proud to spend these beautiful bills and make sure others get to see them!
What bizarre, interesting findings. What a clear illustration that financial decision-making is not common sense! The economic value of the bills remains the same. The cost of our spending remains the same. Yet the condition of our physical money has an impact on how we make financial decisions.
The implications are interesting. Do you ever grab your change and stuff it in a pocket or purse? You may have just made that money easier to spend. Going to a bar with friends? Bring crumpled up, old bills if you want to spend less. Other times, take those worn bills to the bank and exchange them for crisp, clean bills as long as you’re going to spend them in an anonymous way. Maybe…