Curb Impulse Spending By Carrying Larger Bills

If you’ve got a bunch of singles in your wallet, you probably don’t think much of burning a few of them on a trinket or snack that catches your eye. If you’ve got larger bills, such as $20s or $50s, you’re probably less likely to go through the hassle of breaking them just to indulge your whims.

Time’s Moneyland blog verifies the conventional wisdom by citing a paper soon to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research. The paper identifies the tendency as the denomination effect, which convinces you that large bills are sacred “real” money, while small bills are play funds you won’t miss when gone.

If you’d like to rein in your impulse spending, leave your credit card at home — or at least make it difficult to access — and stock your wallet with mostly large bills.

Why (Bill) Size Really Does Matter [Time Moneyland]


Edit Your Comment

  1. Runner says:

    I have a $100 bill that I’ve been carrying around in my pocket for a month now. I don’t want to break it for a few dollars when I buy something, and it’s too inconvient for me to goto an ATM and deposit it.

    • Fubish says: I don't know anything about it, but it seems to me... says:

      I will take care of this problem for you – my mailing address with self-addressed stamped envelope is on its way to you.

  2. Coffee says:

    This does not work for me because my reptilian brain loves seeing one large bill turn into a bunch of smaller bills.

  3. vliam says:

    I actually do this quite often.

    Most places that sell little stupid crap that I don’t really need won’t accept a $100 bill.

    Actually, most gas stations around here won’t accept them either. It’s odd because I commonly see amounts on the pumps as I pull up that are over $75.

    • bluline says:

      I don’t spend $1 bills at all. Instead of tossing loose change in a jar and saving it, I save all my $1 bills. I don’t miss not spending them, and you’d be surprised how many of those you can put away in a year. I use mine to finance my backpacking trips.

  4. Chmeeee says:

    I see a problem with this. Yes, it keeps me from buying things I don’t really need, but eventually I do actually need something, like lunch if I’m on the road. Then I have an assload of smaller bills which are then quite easy to spend.

  5. damicatz says:

    Yeah, this works great until you get robbed. Then you’ll wish you weren’t carrying so much money around.

  6. DubbaEwwTeeEff says:

    Muggers, pickpockets, and general all-around thieves of America thank you for this post.

  7. lovemypets00 - You'll need to forgive me, my social filter has cracked. says:

    At the risk of sounding snarky, if I had a bunch of $20’s or $50’s to carry around with me, a few impulse spending items that cost less than $20 or $50 probably wouldn’t be a problem! If I have an extra $50, it’s for groceries and it’s in my checking account.

    Plus, I wouldn’t carry a bunch of cash around with me in case my purse gets snatched.

  8. Cleo256 says:

    I used to dismiss this, but for the past month I’ve only had some $20s and one of the new purple $5s that the vending machine at work won’t take. It will take the $20s, but I’m not willing to break one and have to deal with the pocketful of dollar coins (or heaven help me if there aren’t enough dollar coins in the machine and I get a sackful of quarters). As a result, I haven’t bought anything from the vending machine at work in a month. This is good for both my wallet and my waistline.

    So even though I’m not sure carrying only big bills around solves all the problems, in this specific case it really has worked.

  9. t2fastspin says:

    I just carry $2 bills—no one takes ’em, or you get arrested for using them.

    • Taed says:

      I did that one summer many years ago. My girlfriend worked at a bank and would special order me $2 bills that I could cash my paycheck in. It was fun for me and an annoyance to others. “Do you have anything other than $2 bills? I don’t know where to put them in my register.”

  10. usernameandp says:

    Curb Impulse Spending By Learning SELF-CONTROL, rather than trying to outwit yourself.

    • Coffee says:

      – Tie a string around your finger to remember things…


      – Use Mnemonic devices like “HOMES” to remember the Great Lakes and PEMDAS for Order of Operations.


      – Freeze your emergency credit card in a cube of ice to prevent impulse purchases.


      I hope you can see how silly this line of reasoning is.

      • usernameandp says:

        Don’t keep guns in your house so you don’t rage & shoot your family.


        If you have a problem with your temper, learn to better manage it (which btw is also related to Self-Control).

        That is NOT silly. Focusing on the cause of a behavioral pattern will ALWAYS yield greater benefits. Not keeping small bills in your wallet merely masks a problem. It’s extremely easy to carry 1s & 5s without spending them… if you learn a little Self-Control.

        • Coffee says:

          Behavior and cognition affect each other. If you want to change the way you behave, it’s often necessary to change the way you think about things. Contrariwise, one useful way to change the way you think about things is to change the way you behave.

          Doing things like coming up with useful ways to stop from impulse spending can lead a person to realizing that the spending does not improve their quality of life substantially, and that the extra saved money makes their life better because they’re able to use it for things like paying down debt. In turn, this can gradually affect the way that they think about impulse spending, thus enabling them to go about their life without having to utilize strategies like the one in this article.

          • usernameandp says:

            In other words, you advocate excluding small bills from your wallet as a temporary crutch. The ultimate goal of course is to develop Self-Control, so that you may one day be able to carry small bills without spending them. Leading to my 1st statement: “Curb Impulse Spending By Learning SELF-CONTROL”.

        • longfeltwant says:

          Yes, it is silly. What you are proposing, is at odds with how brains actually work. Your suggestions are born of cognitive beliefs which, it turns out, are wrong. There has been a revolution in the understanding of brains and minds over the last few decades; you should learn all about those; they will completely change how you judge behavior.

  11. smartmuffin says:

    By the time Obama and Bernanke are done “fixing” the economy via money printing, your $20 will only be worth $1 of goods anyway, so I predict that this strategy is unsustainable.

  12. Extended-Warranty says:

    What’s the difference between carrying large bills, and carrying no bills? I can attest to not wanting to spend some $100 bills I have, but why carry them at all?

  13. SerenityDan says:

    What are these bills? Money comes in paper?

  14. kobresia says:

    Also see: Get turned away from purchases you were planning on making, because too many other customers had been paying for small things with large bills, and there’s not enough of them left to make change. Or forget about buying a cup of coffee because the shop states they won’t accept large bills for tiny purchases, and then complain about how your big bills were discriminated against to Consumerist.

  15. Straspey says:

    I’m curious about this topic because we’ve had a number of discussions here in the recent past regarding the debate between those who carry cash – and those who prefer to use plastic for all their daily purchases and never use cash.

    My impression has been that the majority of people who participate in that discussion are the “plastic” ones – so I don’t see most people in the Consumerist community carrying around large bills, when they use their credit or debit cards to make small-ticket purchases such as a cup of coffee and a newspaper.

    For the record – I am one of the “cash” people…but I use my dollars to buy the slice of pizza and newspaper, while swiping my debit card for anything usually over $20.00

    In fact – in my case, I’d save money by leaving my plastic at home and only using cash.

    Am I totally off-base about this ?

    • CubeRat says:

      I think you are quite correct. If you leave the plastic at home, and only carry small amounts of cash, you’ll do a lot less impulse spending.

      However, it you take the suggestion to carry $50s & $100s around, you may do more spending :)

    • Fubish says: I don't know anything about it, but it seems to me... says:

      I used a bank card all the time – I always made it a point to stop at every ATM I saw until my wife told me where the money was actually coming from.

  16. CubeRat says:

    Doesn’t work for me. Currency bills, in any denomination, is spent like water through a sieve. My very first “real” job was at 17 as a teller at a credit union. I quickly lost any real sense of amounts with currency. I’ve spoken to a lot of others that work with large amount of cash and they say the same thing. Oh, it’s only $20.

    To me, the act of taking money out of the ATM means I’ve already spent it, so anything I pay with cash has no impact. Therefore, I only carry cash for little purchases, ie vending machine or lunch from the cafe. Everywhere else I use my debit or credit cards. And since I track every purchase, I don’t like to make small purchases with my card. But, if I don’t have cash, I delay going to the AMT until I really need it and only take $20, because to me, that’s “real”.

    • LMA says:

      My solution is simply not to have an ATM card at all. Either I use a charge card (paid off in full at the end of every month) for sizable purchases like groceries, over the counter medicines and stuff, or I use cash. In order to get more cash, I have to go to the bank during regular hours, which is something that can’t be swung more than once every week or two, or I don’t buy whatever. I also keep all my credit receipts in my wallet so that every time I pull it out of my bag I see how fat it’s gotten — and if it’s fat, it means no more non-essential purchases. Period. This method has worked quite well for my husband and I for about 15 years. As a result we have this amazing thing … it’s called “savings.”

  17. Bodger says:

    I always start with $100 in $20s from the ATM in my wallet — that is the only way I ever get cash. I can assure you that breaking a $20 (or a $50 or a $100) has never slowed me for even a heartbeat.

  18. HomerSimpson says:

    Bah, I like to circulate my million dollar bills all over :)

  19. mmmwright says:

    I give myself $100 per week to spend as I like – my allowance. I can spend it on anything I like, but can’t go over that amount in a week, so I have to save up to get things that aren’t specific in my budget, like new shoes or dinner out. The very few times I bought something on a credit card because I didn’t have the cash for it, I deducted that amount from the next week’s allowance.

    If you can’t use the $100, what’s the point of having it? Besides, a thief will get much less money from me than someone who stocks their wallet with mostly large bills.

  20. longfeltwant says:

    Jeez there seem to be a lot of tricks people try to use to stop making impulse buys. I find it easy not to make such purchases, so it’s hard for me to sympathize, but I do realize that people are different. I wish it were as easy as telling people just to have some self control, but I know it’s not.

  21. Cantras says:

    There was a $100 bill stuffed in my phone case for almost 2 years now. My husband gave me crap about what if I lost my phone, why don’t I deposit it, etc.

    Then on Wednesday I locked my keys in my car. The locksmith didn’t take card and I don’t carry a checkbook because I’m 25, not 52.

    Now I have a $50 stuffed in my phone case.

  22. Not Given says:

    When I go to the bank DH always wants 5 $20s because it’s hard to break a $100 bill, he also wants one $100 bill for the same reason.
    He only uses debit for gas and things he buys for house and car maintenance or clothes, etc. For lunches and hobbies he uses cash. He couldn’t get cash out of an ATM if his life depended on it unless I was there to do it for him.

  23. KyBash says:

    Cash is like ice — if it’s in little bitty pieces, it evaporates quickly, but if it’s in one big chunk it sticks around for a long time.

    When I graduated high school, my uncle gave me a $500 bill (this was a long time ago) and told me to put in my billfold and only use it in an emergency. I had a variety of problems over the years, but nothing quite worth breaking it. I carried it until they became much more valuable as collector’s items.

  24. energynotsaved says:

    I do so much better with credit cards. I really think about charging things…. I spend cash like water.

  25. PortlandBeavers says:

    The dollar bill shouldn’t even exist anymore. The dollar bills of the 19th century had the purchasing power of a $20 dollar bill of today. You could really make an argument for replacing anything smaller than a $20 with a coin. As for carrying big bills, the $100 dollar bill is about the only one left that really buys a lot. The common bill for the ATM really needs to become the $50, which has the purchasing power the $20 had when ATM’s started dispensing them as the standard bill.

    I don’t think the bills up to $10,000 will ever come back, but they could stand to bring back the $500 bill. There’s already a 500 euro note that’s worth more than the $500 bill would be if it existed.

    The note depicted on the sign only circulated between government agencies, but a person could carry around a $10,000 during the Depression, representing $200,000 or so in today’s dollars.

  26. mubd says:

    I’d say carrying a pocketful of pennies is a much better way to stop you buying things than carrying large bills.

  27. mubd says:

    I’d say carrying a pocketful of pennies is a much better way to stop you buying things than carrying large bills.