“Make It Easy” – it’s not just a Staples advertising gimmick, but a key design principle from behavioral economics. How can we make sure people sign up for 401(k) savings accounts? Make it easy by setting a default plan. How can we get people to eat right? Make it easier by designing an intuitive food ‘plate’ instead of a food pyramid. How can you make sure you get to the gym? Pay the extra money for an on-site locker so you do not have to remember your work-out clothes. These may seem like different types of interventions, but they have one thing in common: they make it easier for us to take the actions we want to take.

For the most part, the BETA Project team shies away from designing something that’s hard to use. When we want people to take an action, we make it simple. But sometimes we want to make it hard to take an action. One of our designs for Cleveland Housing Network (CHN) called for exactly that.

Late Fees & Mental Accounting

A few weeks ago, we discussed how we diagnosed problems at CHN. As part of our diagnosis, we found that some CHN residents didn’t seem overly worried about having to pay the late fee. Many lumped the $25 late fee into the rent payment.

When you think about it, this is odd. Though $25 isn’t a huge amount of money, it’s not pocket change, either, especially for the low-income households that CHN services. You would get angry if you received a $25 fine for a parking ticket or for returning a library book late. Why weren’t residents reacting to a fine for a late rent payment?

Behavioral economists call this phenomenon mental accounting. For an example, compare the following two passages:

Passage 1

Imagine that you are about to purchase a jacket for $125 and a calculator for $15. The calculator salesman informs you that the calculator you wish to buy is on sale for $10 at the other branch of the store, located 20 minutes away. Would you make the trip to the other store?

Passage 2

Imagine that you are about to purchase a jacket for $15 and a calculator for $125. The calculator salesman informs you that the calculator you wish to buy is on sale for $120 at the other branch of the store, located 20 minutes’ drive away. Would you make the trip to the other store?

To an economist, both passages are asking the same thing – would you be willing to spend 20 minutes to save $5? But people are much more willing to make the drive if they read the first passage. We tend to think about savings in relative terms. Reducing the price of a $15 calculator to $10 seems like a great bargain, while reducing the price of a $125 calculator to $120 seems trivial.

When we think about a $25 fine for a parking ticket, we’re comparing it to a “fine” of $0 (i.e., not being charged a fine at all). But CHN residents have to pay their late fee simultaneously with their rent, so they’re comparing something like $500 (the median rent) to $525 ($500 plus the $25 fine). Just like in the jacket and calculator problem, they think about the fine in relative terms, instead of absolute terms. $25 represents only 4% of their rent, so the fine seems relatively small.

The BETA Project Design

Because metal accounting was making the late fee seem small relative to the price of rent, we wanted to try to reframe the decision and disconnect it from the rent payment process. We couldn’t arrange for the late fee to be billed separately from paying rent, but we could try to isolate the process of making the decision to pay the rent late.

We did this by creating a late fee waiver. Residents were issued a one-time waiver, which they could use to cancel a late fee. This changes the decision process by adding another step. Rather than thinking, “Should I pay my rent today? It’s just $25 if I pay late,” residents now first have to decide whether they want to use the late fee waiver or not. This is a subtle, but important, difference. Rather than deciding whether to pay late and thereby increase the cost of rent payment from $500 to $525, the decision is now whether to spend $25 or use the waiver.

An interesting wrinkle is that we wanted the waiver to reframe the decision that people made, but we didn’t necessarily want them to use the waiver. The waiver had two potential effects. First, as discussed above, it could reframe the decision to make residents less willing to pay their rent late. But it also had a potential negative effect—it reduced the penalty of late payment, thereby reducing the disincentive.

This put us in an unusual position: we wanted to make a form that people would not want to use. So, we made it harder for residents to use the waiver.

How did we make the waivers harder to use?

To make the waiver harder to use, the BETA Project team had to make sure it both felt harder to use and actually was harder to use. We did this in several ways:

1. First, we tried to induce the concept of scarcity. The waiver could only be used once, and we tried to frame it as something for residents to use in an emergency, when they really needed it. We hoped that most residents would save it until it expired.

2. Second, we introduced several hassle factors in order to make it difficult to use. Even small hassles make it unlikely that something is used. We added big hassles—most notably, we required residents to come into the CHN offices with their waiver in order to activate it. They could not use it over the phone or over the internet, even though CHN administrators could have easily verified its one-time use.

3. Third, we incorporated several small design tweaks that made the waiver seem more difficult to use than it actually was. For example, each waiver had a unique serial number (even though it was unnecessary, since CHN could track who used it using tenant ID numbers). We also required a signature to use it.

4. Finally, we incorporated a small, but important phrase: “You choose when to use it.” We hoped that this would induce a feeling of autonomy and power over the rent payment process.

Were we successful? We’ll be reporting on the outcomes of the BETA experiments before the end of the year, but here’s something to think about: over the four months of the BETA project, 70 waivers were used out of the 373 that were issued. That’s 19%, which means that 81% of CHN residents were not taking up “free money.”

Next BETA Project Post: Simple Plan-Making Strategies

Our next post on the BETA Project will discuss how to create an effective plan—and stick to it. This post and other helpful insights from the BETA Project are available on CFED’s Behavioral Economics blog and BETA Project website.