Gift Cards and Mental Accounting: Green-lighting Hedonic Spending

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ABSTRACT

In three studies, we examine the mental accounting rules that govern how gift cards are used. We predicted that their identity as gift cards would shift consumption from utilitarian to hedonic goods even in contexts where both types of goods are available and the consumer's needs are unchanged. In Study 1a, participants were asked to imagine that they had both a gift card and a specified amount of cash and needed to purchase both a hedonic item and a utilitarian item. When asked which currency they would use to buy which item, respondents were significantly more likely to say they would use the gift card to buy the hedonic item. Study 1b replicated this result and found that it was tied to participants' beliefs how different types of money should be used. In Study 2, we found that participants who were required to spend a certain amount of their compensation in a laboratory store spent more on hedonic goods if their payment was in the form of a gift card. In Study 3, we analyzed transactions at a campus bookstore and found that shoppers tended to spend disproportionately on hedonic goods when using their gift cards than when making credit card purchases. Taken together, these studies indicate that people tend to assign the monetary value of a gift card to a hedonic mental account and spend it accordingly. Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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