Winning the battle but losing the war: The psychology of debt management

Moty Amar, Dan Ariely, Shahar Ayal, Cynthia E. Cryder, Scott I. Rick

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

103 Scopus citations


When consumers carry multiple debts, how do they decide which debt to repay first? Normatively, consumers should repay the debt with the highest interest rate most quickly. However, because people tend to break complicated tasks into more manageable parts, and because losses are most distressing when segregated, the authors hypothesize that people will pay off the smallest loan first to reduce the total number of outstanding loans and achieve a sense of tangible progress toward debt repayment. To experimentally examine how consumers manage multiple debts, the authors develop an incentive-compatible debt management game, in which participants are saddled with multiple debts and need to decide how to repay them over time. Consistent with the hypothesis, four experiments reveal evidence of debt account aversion: Participants consistently pay off small debts first, even though the larger debts have higher interest rates. The authors also find that restricting participants' ability to completely pay off small debts, and focusing their attention on the amount of interest each debt has accumulated, helps them reduce overall debt more quickly.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)S38-S50
JournalJournal of Marketing Research
Issue numberSPEC. ISSUE
StatePublished - 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • Credit cards
  • Debt consolidation
  • Debt repayment
  • Financial decision making
  • Goals


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