The effect of access opportunities on spending versus saving

A TFI research project by Baris Depecik and Ozgun Atasoy
Posted on February 22, 2021

There has been a lot of development when it comes to rental and streaming services that has occurred over the past two decades. The development has allowed customers to enjoy the services that some products offer without actually having to own them, ranging from music streaming platforms to car sharing services. These opportunities bring forward a lot of flexibility for customers, it is also beneficial towards decreasing consumption. The question is, how does the presence of these services affect the way we spend and save money? In this TFI research, Baris Depecik and Ozgun Atasoy seek to find the link between access opportunities and the motivation to save money.

Download the report or read about the summary below to find out about the results


The last two decades have witnessed the launch and rapid growth of streaming services and other rental-type platforms. Although some of us still enjoy collecting music and movies, record and DVD collections became largely obsolete as streaming platforms gained popularity. Sharing a car, a bicycle or a scooter with a stranger became normal in many cities around the world. And a wide variety of goods – from apparel to electronic equipment – are now easily available for rent via online sharing platforms. These opportunities introduce a welcome flexibility: we no longer need to commit to buying. And helping achieve a more efficient use of existing resources, they are likely good for our planet, too.

But how do these access opportunities influence the way we see spending and saving our money? With our TFI research project, we aimed to uncover the link between access opportunities and how motivated people are to save money.

Planning for the future

Public policymakers and consumer advocates are often worried about how little most people manage to save. Although we all know that savings act as a buffer against future financial troubles, most of us are psychologically unprepared for adequately planning for the future. Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow studies illustrate the problem well: an immediate reward is hard to resist, even though we know that waiting would increase the reward. The concept of spending versus saving is cut from the same cloth: peace of mind and a comfortable retirement are great, but these are distant outcomes compared to the enjoyment one could have buying things and services right here, right now.

In June 2020, we recruited 200 US residents through a crowdsourcing website, and asked them how – if at all – the presence of access opportunities might influence their need to save money for the future. On average, they indicated that these opportunities decrease the need to save; they also indicated that access opportunities help people focus on the present instead of the future. We found that the stronger someone believed that access opportunities help people focus on the present, the stronger they believed that access opportunities decrease the need to save. After all, access is usually about fulfilling current needs, whereas purchase and ownership fulfil future needs. When access makes us focus on the present, future might seem less important to prepare for.

The rise of rental sceptics

Analysing people’s online search activity, we found that the more interest people take in access-based services, the less interest they show for saving. This is consistent with the result that we just discussed. To our surprise, however, making people think about access in an experiment had the opposite effect: people who thought about access opportunities indicated a higher (not lower) willingness to save money than those who thought about purchase opportunities. At first glance, these results seem contradictory. How does engaging with access lead to a decreased interest in saving in one context, and an increased interest in another?

The key could be the voluntary nature of online searches and the involuntary nature of respondents’ exposure to access opportunities during the experiment. Some people – let’s call them rental sceptics – strongly prefer ownership, making them sceptical of renting. When they are shown access opportunities in our experiment, they perhaps reject these opportunities and feel motivated to accumulate possessions, and accumulate savings to be able to afford possessions. Rental sceptics’ responses might have overwhelmed other people’s responses, leading to the overall effect of access prompts (reminders of access opportunities) increasing saving intentions.

In our study of online searches, however, we observed that high volume of searches for access-based services is associated with low volume of searches for saving-related terms. Why did rental sceptics not reverse this effect? This may be a self-selection issue: rental sceptics are less likely to make frequent online searches for access-based services. In consequence, in the absence of a defensive reaction, thinking more about and engaging more heavily with access-based services may have inadvertently oriented people toward the present and lowered their interest in saving.

Our data does indeed provide some support for this view. In our experiment, we also measured our respondents’ personal preference for renting versus ownership. Only those who strongly prefer ownership increased their saving intentions in response to considering access opportunities. In addition, a separate study based on a large-scale survey (in which respondents were interviewed by phone) provided us with corroborating evidence that a stronger preference for renting or subscription services is associated with a weaker concern for planning for the future, which lowers savings rates.

Preliminary conclusions and results

Despite the enormous promise of access-based services in enriching and improving people’s lives, there is at least one caveat: their availability may increase the subjective importance of the present – at the expense of planning for the future. Given what the marketplace offers, it often seems as if ownership is merely a burden. We are not, however, giving up our possessions easily. Sense of ownership is a universally positive feeling, even though some seek it more vigorously than others. The proliferation of rental-type arrangements might in fact serve to some as a reminder to double down on their efforts to own more stuff.

We see our results as preliminary still. They need to be replicated, and more experimental data should probe the processes described above. In particular, experimental procedures should clarify how reminders of access opportunities might shift time perspectives. Therefore, the implications discussed below are merely tentative.

Two major implications

First, our findings may shed light on how to motivate people to save. In order to motivate people with concrete reasons to save, public policy institutions often mention a variety of purchases that savings would help achieve.

For instance, a public video by the American Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (‘How to Jumpstart Your Savings at Tax Time) mentions a series of potential future purchases to motivate people to save. This approach is unlikely to motivate those who consider moving away from traditional ownership-based consumption. There are other strong reasons to emphasize, like mentioning that savings are very useful in case one needs to deal with health risks or job loss, or to purchase experiences (rather than stuff) like vacations, education. And let’s not forget about more distant-future spending like retirement, and about support causes that people care about (philanthropic, environmental, or political).

Second, our findings have implications concerning how to encourage people to use access-based services. Not everyone considers access a desired alternative to ownership; some may even see it as a threat to their way of life and values. The appeal of ownership has strong psychological and cultural roots. Nevertheless, there are good reasons for encouraging access as an alternative to ownership. One reason is the environment—access is often associated with a more efficient use of the planet’s resources (for instance, car sharing).

How can a company or public policy institution promote access-based consumption without triggering a backlash? One approach is to realize that ownership is a feeling, which may develop in the absence of legal ownership. If some degree of association between access-based consumption and feelings of ownership is established, consumers may react to access-based consumption in a less defensive way. Customizable features (or touch interfaces for using digital products) may help establish a sense of control and ownership. Being able to create and share content such as online music playlists may facilitate a sense of ownership as a result of having invested time and effort into the product.

Even though these features may not completely erase the psychological disadvantage of access against possession in terms of feelings of ownership, they might mitigate some of the potential defensive reactions.