How Your Last Name Predicts Your Shopping Habits

How Your Last Name Predicts Your Shopping Habits

Yes, you inherit money habits from your family.

But not just in the way you think. It turns out that your last name might be a predictor of your shopping impulses.

A recent fascinating study showed that you're more likely to impulse buy if your last name begins with a letter late in the alphabet.

Researchers surmise that the cause of this is our educational system's emphasis on alphabetical order, from roll call to lining up for recess to classroom seating. To compensate for a lifetime of waiting or sitting in the back, people who were alphabetically challenged as children are more likely to impulse spend as adults. According to various studies, they are more likely to seize on opportunities billed as "limited time only" or "while supplies last."

Researchers Kurt Carlson of Georgetown Business School and Jacqueline Conard of Belmont University Business School found that:

  • Students with last names from R through Z were 22% quicker to jump on an offer of free basketball tickets than those with last names from A through I.
  • Adults were asked to complete an online survey for a 1 in 500 chance to win $500. The Zeiglers and their compatriots were more likely to grab the opportunity and did so more quickly than did the Abbotts and their cohort.
  • End of the alphabet sufferers would even spend 15 minutes to go home and get their wallet in order to save 20% on a backpack “while supplies last.”

Even marrying into an earlier-in-the-alphabet surname doesn’t reverse the curse of what is called the “last-name effect.” It's your childhood, not adult, last name that foretells your shopping impulses.

Pick a friend who is a savvy, frugal shopper—or at least, whose last name begins with A—to call when you feel the impulse to splurge.

Whether your last name is Zillman or Abalone and this effect applies to you, these studies illustrate a powerful point: having to wait or being denied premium opportunities as a child can give you a tendency toward impulsive spending urges as an adult. In addition, perhaps what is perceived as unfairly or arbitrarily waiting compared to peers might create a sense that you must grab at opportunities or good things will pass you by.

And these impulsive spending urges make responsible financial planning as an adult much more challenging.

These studies are disturbing enough for us to call for education reform immediately so that teachers spend equal time using the reverse alphabet to organize the classroom--and it certainly gives us pause in considering how repeated denial in general may play out later in our children's spending habits.

To counteract unintentional behaviors, last name-related or not, follow these four tips to make sure you aren’t distracted by “special” deals.

1. Ask Yourself If This Purchase Is in Line With Your Financial Goals

You see a leather jacket in the exact style you want, and it’s 50% off. But even with the discount, it’s $300—a good chunk of what you need for your upcoming vacation in Brazil. To stay on track, put visual reminders of your goals everywhere—and always ask yourself whether you can afford it, not whether it's a deal.

2. Find a Spending Buddy

Pick a friend who is a savvy, frugal shopper—or at least, whose last name begins with A—to call when you feel the impulse to splurge. They will help you think through whether the deal is as good as it seems, where you might be able to score a better bargain and whether you actually want the item.

3. Track Your Spending

Logging your expenses makes you more aware of all your emotional spending habits. You’ll see quickly how your impulse purchases add up, and how much money you could free up for your most important goals if you gain control over big and small shopping binges.

4. Create a Rule of Thumb

If you set up a hard and fast rule about spending, you’re less likely to break it. Make it personal and specific--maybe it’s “Take two days to think over all purchases of $100 or more,” or “No online sample sales,” or “No jeans more than $75.” Make it a standard that addresses your own personal spending patterns, and change it up every few months as you conquer your bad habits.


An additional suggestion: If you're a woman, don't marry a Zelnick. Just kidding. Or at least seriously consider the hyphenated name hybrid to give your kid a bump in the classroom.

TELL US: Childhood is a powerful, oft-forgotten foundation for so many of our adult habits. Does the "last-name effect" ring true for you and your finances?


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