The Bottom-Dollar Effect, Explained

By Timothy Moore · November 14, 2022 · 9 minute read

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The Bottom-Dollar Effect, Explained

Have you ever noticed that spending money right after your paycheck is deposited feels great, but doing so later in the week, as your resources dwindle, is a lot less satisfying?

You’re not being moody or imagining things. This is a very real financial phenomenon known as the bottom-dollar effect. It explains the human tendency to have more negative associations with a final purchase that depletes one’s allocated budget.

Read on to learn more about:

•   What the bottom dollar effect is

•   When and why it happens

•   Tips that can help you make better purchase decisions

What Is the Bottom-Dollar Effect?

So what does bottom-dollar mean? First, an example: If you allow yourself to spend $500 a year on new clothes, the bottom-dollar effect means that you are more likely to be dissatisfied with the last clothing item you are able to purchase that year with your $500 shopping budget.

Researchers first coined this “bottom-dollar” phrase in an article that appeared in the October 2014 issue of Journal of Consumer Research. Robin Soster, a marketing professor at the University of Arkansas, conducted the study with colleagues Andrew Gershoff (University of Texas at Austin) and William Bearden (University of South Carolina).

According to Soster and her colleagues, the bottom-dollar effect refers to the experience of feeling significantly less satisfied with a product or service purchased with the last of one’s budget, regardless of the quality or cost of that product or service.

People who live paycheck to paycheck may feel the bottom-dollar effect as they near the end of their pay period, when funds are running out. But even those who live more comfortably tend to feel the pain of spending the last of an allocated budget, like the amount they set aside in their monthly budget for dining out. Or perhaps the negative feelings kick in when the funds in a person’s savings account (one allotted for a specific vacation) are drained. This can happen even if the money is earmarked only mentally, not in a separate account.

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What Causes the Bottom-Dollar Effect?

While scientists may have a few theories about why the bottom-dollar effect happens, they typically boil it all down to how people view their money. Individuals have a tendency to organize their money — whether physically in piggy banks and sock drawers, digitally in different savings accounts, or just mentally (e.g., “I’m limiting myself to $200 for souvenirs on this vacation”).

A researcher named Richard Thaler explained the latter tendency as mental accounting. It means you might mentally view your salaried income differently from bonus income. You may see earned money differently from gifted money in a birthday card, and you might classify money set aside for sports events and movie tickets differently from money set aside from clothes and shoes — even though it’s all the same.

So even though you might have plenty of money in your savings account, if you’ve mentally earmarked $2,000 for a vacation in a travel fund account and you’re down to your last $100 on the final night, you are more likely to find that last vacation expense more painful. (You’re using up the last of your funds, exactly what bottom-dollar means.)

Even if it’s spent on an amazing meal, a once-in-a-lifetime boat ride, or a behind-the-scenes tour of a famous landmark, you may struggle to see as much value in the experience because that $100 seemed more meaningful and important. And you may transfer the negative experience of running out of money with the actual experience (or product) itself. That’s the bottom-dollar effect in action.

Recommended: Tips to Stop Overspending

Where Does the Bottom-Dollar Effect Occur?

The bottom-dollar effect can happen with all types of purchases. If you have a monthly grocery or gas budget, you are probably going to feel frustrated when you buy your last bag of food or fill up your tank one last time at the end of the month. If you live paycheck to paycheck, you may be even more likely to have negative associations with the final purchases you make before your next payment. And if you limit yourself each week, month, or year on certain splurges, you may not enjoy that final splurge as much as you did the first one, even if it’s an objectively “better” purchase.

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Why Be Aware of the Bottom-Dollar Effect?

Being aware of the bottom-dollar effect may allow you to be less affected by it. Simply reminding yourself that it can represent an irrational emotion could negate the effects.

Being aware of the bottom-dollar effect is also helpful when you first get your paycheck or a new month starts. People are more likely to splurge then. By remembering the bottom-dollar effect, you may help yourself change your spending habits so that you spend more evenly throughout a pay period, month, or year.

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What Does the Bottom-Dollar Effect Say About Our Spending Habits?

The bottom-dollar effect can reflect fairly typical spending habits. When you first get your paycheck or when a new month starts in your budget, you are more likely to spend more money.

The bottom-dollar effect also demonstrates how easily humans can attach emotions to purchases, similar to the ideas of immediate gratification from an impulse buy or buyer’s remorse after a purchase.

In the case of the bottom-dollar effect, dissatisfaction has nothing to do with the actual product or service you purchased but instead related to when you spent the money and how much money you have left.

Do Companies and Organizations Take Advantage of the Bottom-Dollar Effect?

You may wonder if the bottom-dollar phenomenon is ever used by clever marketers or businesses. When Soster and her colleagues first announced the results of their study, they immediately pointed to the implications for marketing.

In a statement on the University of Arkansas’ news site, Foster said, “If a marketer’s goal is to attract new customers, initial promotions might be better timed at the beginning of a month or immediately after consumers receive tax refunds, to ensure that budgets are not approaching exhaustion at the time of purchase.”

So, being aware of the bottom-dollar effect can be a good thing. It can make you more aware of when you are likely to be receiving more promotions and discounts from marketers. This can help you assess when to shop and when to hold back.

Examples of the Bottom-Dollar Effect

Below are a few examples of the bottom-dollar effect:

•   Paycheck: Assume you live paycheck to paycheck and are paid every two weeks. When your bank account is almost empty near the end of that period, you might be more dissatisfied with purchases, whether they are necessary (like groceries or the electric bill) or splurges (like an ice cream or movie tickets).

•   Needs: Even if you live more comfortably, your budget may allot a certain amount to spend each month on necessities like food and gas. As you near the end of the month and see that your grocery budget is almost depleted, you may be less satisfied when you make your final grocery run. This can happen even though you know you have additional money to pull from if you run out or go over.

•   Wants: If you mentally set aside a fixed amount each month or year for things like video games, shoes, or travel, you may find yourself less happy with purchases made when that money is almost gone.

Recommended: Signs You’re Living Beyond Your Means

Can the Bottom-Dollar Effect Be Avoided?

Avoiding the pain associated with the bottom-dollar effect can be difficult because it is, by definition, an irrational emotion. However, there are a few ways you can minimize the impact, if not avoid it altogether:

•   Be aware of the effect. As you see your allocated budget dwindling, remind yourself of the bottom-dollar effect. Sometimes all it takes is reasoning with yourself. That can make you more comfortable with spending the last of funds that you have mentally set aside for the very purchase you’re making.

•   Add an “unexpected overages” budget line item. If you can afford to budget additional funds each month to cover accidental or unexpected overages, you might feel better as your monthly allowances dwindle. For example, if you have $100 a month allocated to overages, you can draw on that money for something like a family cookout, where you might need to completely exhaust your grocery budget. Knowing that there is an extra $100 just in case makes it easier to spend for the gathering without feeling guilt or frustration.

•   Build more flexibility into your budget. The more rigid your budget is, the more often you may feel the bottom-dollar effect. If you think of each budget item (groceries, gas, entertainment, etc.) as a flexible range instead of one fixed number, you might be able to spend more easily without feeling negative emotions.

Tips for Improving Purchasing Decisions

Mentally reminding yourself that the bottom-dollar effect isn’t rational is one way to improve your purchasing decisions (or at least your satisfaction with your decisions). But how else can you improve and feel better about your purchasing decisions? Here are some ideas:

•   Make a flexible budget. Making a budget is important, but building in more flexibility for life’s unexpected events — from emergency car repairs to a surprise opportunity to travel somewhere new — can keep you from feeling upset about how you spend your money.

•   Research products and services. Dissatisfaction with a purchase because of the bottom-dollar effect is one thing, but dissatisfaction because you actually don’t like the product or service is another. While you’ll never truly know until you buy, researching a purchasing decision before swiping your card can help set expectations — and steer you away from a bad purchase altogether.

•   Get a checking account that works for you. Spending money feels worse when you’re also paying fees just to be able to access that money. Find a checking account without any monthly fees and, better yet, one that offers features like no-fee overdraft coverage and even cash back.

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Is the bottom-dollar effect negative?

The bottom-dollar effect can be considered negative, as it makes people feel dissatisfied with products and services that they purchased. Marketers can also use the bottom-dollar effect to their advantage, potentially manipulating consumers into spending money at the beginning of the month, year, or pay period — or at particular times, like tax season.

What are the pros and cons of the bottom-dollar effect?

A benefit of the bottom-dollar effect is that it can prompt people to be more selective with how they spend their money at the end of the month or a pay period. It can help avoid impulse buys when a person needs to save their dollars for bills. However, a downside of the bottom-dollar effect is that a person might overspend when they first get paid and feel as if they have a fresh infusion of money to freely spend.

Is it unethical for companies to use the bottom-dollar effect to their advantage?

Companies can and do use the bottom-dollar effect in marketing practices. Some people may feel that marketing that preys on one’s emotions is unethical, but this is just one of many marketing practices that uses people’s feelings to their advantage.

Photo credit: iStock/Elena Frolova

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