Learning from the lab: Exploring debt repayment and scope insensitivity

Payment frequency
Experiment Type
Lab Learning
Repay loan
Reduce debt
Focus Areas
Lab Research
Behavioral Concepts
Three credit unions that are part of Filene’s i3 program

What Happened

It worked. At least in a hyopthetical lab setting, more frequent payments led to higher repayment of credit card debt.

Lessons Learned

Framing and cadence of payment affect how much money people are willing to set aside to repay credit card debt.


According to Experian’s State of Credit: 2017 report, the average balance on credit cards is $6,354 in 2017, and total credit card debt in the U.S. hit an all-time high of $1.021 trillion. With credit card interest rates at 15% or 25%, paying just the minimum due each month is not going to make a dent in paying the debt off.

We wondered whether there are better ways to structure credit card payments to encourage greater debt repayment. To explore this issue, we worked with three credit unions as part of Filene’s i3 program. Specifically, we investigated if changing the timing and frequency of credit card payments might influence the amount paid each month.

Key Insights

Our experiment builds on a body of research that suggests that people’s perceptions of their finances and their willingness to pay are influenced by the way their finances are framed.

  • Recent research on scope insensitivity and debt repayment by Daniel Mochon indicates that making smaller, more frequent payments may be a more appealing structure than less frequent, larger payments.

  • From our work with Propel, we also saw that reframing the monthly budget to a weekly budget impacted how people spent their SNAP benefits. The typical payment cadence for credit cards is monthly, so we wanted to investigate how a weekly payment option would change people’s payment amounts.


We designed an experiment to test the impacts of payment frequency using a survey of approximately 2,000 credit union members. Each member in the experiment was presented with the same situation:

  • “Imagine that you have a credit card payment due at the end of the month. The minimum due is $72.00 and the total balance is $7,200, which you can’t afford to pay in full right now. The interest rate is 12%.”

After reading the prompt, respondents were then asked how much they would consider paying. However, the respondents were randomly divided and asked about payment in two different ways.


We found that the respondents who were in the monthly payment condition said they would pay $1,154 for the month on average. The respondents who were in the 4 weekly payments condition, on the other hand, said they would pay $501 per week on average – which adds up to over $2,004 for the month. This difference is a 74% increase in payment, just by changing from a monthly to weekly payment frequency.

Furthermore, 58% of the respondents with credit card debt who are also paid biweekly said they would like to align their credit card payments with their income payment schedule. These results give us reason to believe that both increasing payment frequency and aligning payments with paydays could help people to pay down their credit card debt faster.