A few years ago, when I was reporting a story on personal finance, I became fascinated by a concept that behavioral economists call the “pain of paying.” The phrase refers to the psychological discomfort experienced when parting with one’s money, and it varies by medium: At one extreme would be painstakingly counting out each penny at the register (a high pain of paying, because of how tactile the transaction is), and near the other would be credit cards (which, by postponing payment and offering rewards programs, ease the agony of depleting funds).
A lower pain of paying feels nicer, but it also tends to lead to higher spending—as research indicates credit cards do. As I familiarized myself with that research, I viewed the plastic rectangle in my pocket with increasing wariness (though, it should be noted, credit cards increase spending much less if one pays off the balance in full each month, as opposed to carrying debt and racking up interest payments and fees). “The overspending induced by a credit card will, except in tandem with the most un-fun, disciplined rules, outweigh its perks,” I wrote at the time.
As a matter of fact, after writing that piece I came up with just such an un-fun, disciplined rule and applied it to my own spending—and it has mostly worked. The rule is simple: After I buy something, I log the transaction on my phone, recording the price and what I bought. The idea is to increase the pain of paying, especially with a credit card, by forcing myself to take note of what I’m spending.