UCL News


How you spend your money could reveal aspects of your personality

17 July 2019

Spending habits can reveal more about our personalities than age or salary, according to research by UCL and Columbia Business School.


Researchers found that people who are more open to experiences tend to spend more on flights, whereas those who are more extraverted tend to make more dining and drinking purchases.

Those who are agreeable donate more to charity and those who are more conscientious put more aside for a rainy day. More materialistic people spend more on jewellery and less on charitable donations.

Age wasn’t found to be a significant factor, and salary only came into effect for people in highly deprived areas, when it became harder to predict spending habits.

Lead author Dr Joe Gladstone (UCL School of Management) said: “Now that most people spend their money electronically – with billions of payment cards in circulation worldwide – we can study these spending patterns at scale like never before.

“Our findings demonstrate for the first time that it is possible to predict people’s personality from their spending.”

The academics worked with a UK-based money management app to analyse over two million spending records from credit cards and bank transactions from more than 2,000 individuals with consent.

Account holders also completed a brief personality survey that included questions measuring materialism, self-control and the ‘Big Five’ personality traits of openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.

Predictive accuracy varied across different traits, with predictions being more accurate for the narrow traits of materialism and self-control than for the broader traits of the Big Five.

Participants’ spending data was organised into broad categories, including supermarkets, furniture shops, insurance policies, online retail and coffee shops. Researchers used a machine learning technique to analyse whether participants’ relative spending across categories was predictive of specific traits.

Researchers found that those who reported greater self-control spent less on bank charges and those who rated higher on neuroticism spent less on mortgage payments.

When viewed in the context of previous research that has attempted to use online behaviour to predict personality, these results suggest that spending-based predictions of personality are less accurate than predictions based on Facebook ‘likes’ or status updates. These updates offer a more direct reflection of individual preferences and identity. However, spending-based predictions seem to be just as accurate as predictions based on music preferences and Flickr photos.

The findings could have implications for the banking and financial services industries which also raises potential ethical challenges. For example, financial services could use personality predictions to identify individuals with certain traits such as low self-control, and then target those individuals across a variety of domains from online advertising to direct mail.

Project co-lead Dr Sandra Matz (Columbia Business School) said: “This means that as personality predictions become more accurate and ubiquitous, and as behaviour is recorded digitally at an increasing scale, there is an urgent need for policymakers to ensure that individuals (and societies) are protected against potential abuse of such technologies.”



Media contact

Kate Corry

Tel: +44 (0)20 3108 6995

Email: k.corry [at] ucl.ac.uk