How Your Last Name Affects Your Spending Habits

By Darwins Money on 13 April 2011 (Updated 6 June 2013) 19 comments
Photo: CEFutcher

You may think it sounds ridiculous, but there's pretty compelling evidence that your buying patterns and, in essence, financial outcomes in life, may actually be influenced by your last name. I came across a study that used a pretty broad data set and sound design to highlight that depending on where your last name falls in the alphabet, you may be inclined to jump at "deals" and spending opportunities more than others. (See also: When Deals Matter)

Why Being a "Z" Is Expensive

According to the study (as highlighted by Time) since Zs and other people with end-of-alphabet last names are generally at the back of the line from schooldays onward, there's a pattern of getting things after everyone else. From the lunch line to recess, this pattern is pounded into the psyche so much so that it actually carries forward with people who change to an earlier-letter last name later in life. While children who are always at the front of the line become accustomed to the luxury of going first, children at the back of the line start to become anxious and fearful of "missing out."

I know, you're skeptical. But the data doesn't lie. In an experiment where subjects received emails with offers of free tickets to a basketball game, the average response rate was significantly faster for R-Z names versus A-I names. In a second experiment, subjects were enticed by the prospect of being entered into a drawing to win $500 and again, the end-of-alphabet names had the quickest replies. The article outlines a few more experiments with concurring results.

What Does Your Last Name Mean Then?

Does this mean if you have a late-letter last name you're doomed to a lifetime of financial failure? Of course not. And like any broad statistical set, there will be outliers. I know plenty of impulse shoppers with names that span the alphabet.

But if you have a late-letter last name, you should be aware of the potential forces that may be at play here. And while there may be a higher propensity for a certain behavior in your cohort, it shouldn't justify that behavior. Rather than using this new-found link as an excuse, recognize in advance that you may be predisposed to harmful consumer behavior. As the author of the Time article suggested, perhaps retailers might even focus increased marketing efforts on people based on their last names to boost their bottom lines! Think about that the next time you get an "exclusive" offer or have an impulse to make an unplanned purchase. Social deal sites like Groupon play on our fears of missing out on a deal. This is the perfect setting for frenzied impulse buying, and retailers are experts at shopping Jedi mind tricks. This tidbit may may save you thousands over your lifetime!

Personally, my last name's in the middle of the alphabet, and I can't say I'm any more prone to impulsive spending behaviors than anyone else. But I'd be curious to hear your take. Are you close an A or a Z? Do you feel any influence from your place in line as a child?

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Guest's picture
beck middleton

As a Middleton perhaps I should find myself a middle of the road spender? I'm not convinced by this research to be honest, I feel that your parents attitudes to money have a far greater influence on your spending habits.

Guest's picture
Olivia

I was born with an early in the alphabet name and married an early in the alphabet name and my husband and I are total opposites. He spends, I don't. Could birth order have anything to do with it?

Guest's picture
Miss Lissy

I was a Z until I recently got married (now I'm a B) and I don't think that this effects my spending, but I definitely know I hate being last and try to avoid it.

Guest's picture
Guest

I grew up a "W" and always at the end of the line. My children are "D's" and now, at least in our school, they line up by first name which puts them all at the end with their "T's" for first names.
As far as growing up a W, I actually enjoyed always being last - knew where i needed to go in line and felt sorry for those in the middle. I don't think it made me impulsive or a spender. (Although my husband might disagree!)

Guest's picture

Interesting. I'm certainly not the best as saving money but I don't usually get sucked into impulse buying or fall for retailer mind tricks (probably because of close family members being sales people.) I will take up a deal though if it's something I'm in the market for anyway - actually I generally will hold out for a deal and try to get the most for my money.

Guest's picture
G

Eh, I don't know if I believe that. I think there are a lot of other influences at work, too. My firstborn mulls things over, my second/middle child leaps before looking--and they both have the same last (T) name. I became an extravagant and impulsive buyer once I had my own income, as a result of growing up in a very frugal, single-parent household (H last name). Not only that, I only remember a few instances in school where were were lined up alphabetically, and in my children's school, they line up alphabetically by first name--and only in kindergarten.
I can see this affecting a certain segment of the population but I think the scope of the experiments was too narrow to prove anything.

Guest's picture
Guest

What a funny study! But I can see the validity - you see I grew up as a Z - and I was very tall when I was young [alas that ended after puberty] so I was often at the back of the line no matter what.

I married an A

and my kids are As . . .

I do have a little of that feeling and I loathe waiting in lines - my husband doesn't mind it nearly so much and never has that must get it unless it runs out feeling . . . I've worked at mine tremendously as a long time frugalite but it was interesting to think of a possible contributing factor to that feeling!

Guest's picture
Guest

Interesting. My last name is a V and first name Z, so I've had my fair share of being last on the list (graduations, mailing lists). However, in my native alphabet (cyrillic), V is the third letter from the start, and Z is in the first half of the alphabet, so I guess I've experienced both sides of the coin -- beginning of the alphabet until the end of middle school, and the end afterwards. I have to say I am a low-key person, so being towards the end doesn't bother me -- I like to see how things play out for others first. I'm not a compulsive spender either, I take my time to research a product.

Guest's picture
Guest

Just kidding here, but maybe the late-letter experiment subject responded more quickly to the emails because they're not as busy as the uber-productive early-letters.

Guest's picture
Guest

My teachers always alternated between A-Z and Z-A so no one was made to wait longer than anyone else on average. I thought that was normal?

Guest's picture

This is definitely an interesting topic. My last name begins with W... I dont know that im an impulse buyer, since I tend to purchase online as opposed to in-store...but like you said, there are outliers.

Guest's picture
Vicki` Webb

I am a "W" And I will say that the only thing I do constantly is I do tend to "OVERBUY" a certain item...If there are just a few, or if it is a great deal..I'll stock up. BUT I HATE SHOPPING. Always have + always will. I think the reason I over buy is because a) I hate shopping + this way I won''t have to go back as often, b) I do have plenty of storage room, c) a deal is a deal, if you can use it......YOU TELL ME !!!!

Guest's picture
Jack

My last name falls in the middle of the alphabet. I can't say as I feel an overwhelming desire to beat everyone else to a deal. In theory, I can see where alway being last in line could develop this attitude. One way teachers and others could combat this tendency is switch it up periodically and start with the end of the alphabet. I had a teacher that actually did this every other day or so.

Guest's picture
Kris

I read the Time article (which didn't link the source study either) and noticed that none of the experiments dealt with loss. The experiments all dealt with people being given the chance to win things or being given scenarios under which they had to wait to receive a gain.

The only one dealing directly with shopping is hypothetical. All it really proves is that people with end of the alphabet last names may be more cost-conscious and willing to go out of their way to find a bargain. A better way to administer this test would have been to give students actual money to spend on an item then see what happens.

My point is they didn't check for risk aversion which makes this study only half complete. People are less likely to act in impulsive ways when loss is involved than when gains are involved. When the participants have nothing to lose, all this study proves is that the last letter names are more deal savvy.

Guest's picture
karen

I think it's a bunch of hooey. My husband's last name starts with a Y and he is as tight with money as his parents. My last name was a F and I never owned a credit card and paid all expenses with cash. As a married couple, we are quite frugal and analytical when it comes to spending. Go figure.

Guest's picture

It's like the doctors telling folks an illness is in their genes.

When a doctor does not understand the nature of illness, she would ask about the parents. Nope! the parents don't have it. Then the doctor says what about your grandparents. The patient says OH Yap! my father said his father had this illness. So the doctor says your illness skips one generation.

I don't believe for a minute the truthfulness of the research whether it was reviewed by Time or someone else.

The problem I see is that in the name of science, so much of the data is corrupted by these scientists. The same goes for research in the name of religion.

Guest's picture
Jennie

Well, this IS very interesting. After the first paragraph it all made sense. I, too, am in the middle of the alphabet, and for the most part don't feel much of a pull in one direction or another when I purchase a deal. Lately, however, I have purchased quite a few and have thought to myself, "Maybe I should chill out on these deals." Now that I think about it, after reading this article made me realize that I did get a little exasperated back in my elementary days whenever the teacher did roll call or lined us up in the hall due to the fact that I had wait because my name appeared later on the list.

Guest's picture
Observer

Any mention of effect size? Even if the study determines that there is a statistically significant difference amongst names, that hardly means it is a large difference. IN other words, it may not be significant in the colloquial sense of the term. Could be only 0.001% greater likelihood than chance, but with a large enough number of study subjects that could still be considered statistically significant.

Guest's picture

Having a last name that starts with 'A' was always problematic for me in school. I had a lot of teachers who turned to the alphabet when deciding on who to pick on for answers, chores, etc. No good!