Ever Wonder Why Frequent Flyer Miles Seem So Valuable?

By Justin A. Reckers

People often focus on near-term concrete goals in financial decision-making. While trying to maximize these immediate and clear goals they forget or discount the real reason for the actions. This is called Medium Maximization. Having something measurable within reach can redirect our motivation. Immediate and concrete goals by which to measure ourselves give a sense of progress. Plus it just seems an easier decision to make.

When an airline offers a frequent-flyer program it allows members to accumulate miles. The miles begin to obtain value to the program member despite being only a medium you can trade for free travel. The member doesn’t truly care about the miles. He cares about the benefit of accumulating those miles, free travel. The medium, in this case, frequent flyer miles, truly has no value yet still draws the concentration of the program member. “The money we earn from work is also a medium. Thus, the potential implication of research on medium is not medium; it is extra large.” Christopher Hsee, Journal of Consumer Research, June 2003 

The tenet of Medium Maximization says people often fail to fully skip over the medium (frequent flyer miles) in favor of the benefit (free travel). For example, consider the opening scene to the film Wedding Crashers. The scene concentrates on a divorcing couple in the midst of a Divorce Mediation session. They begin arguing over who should be awarded the frequent flyer miles. Frequent flyer miles and other frequent buyer or cash back rewards programs are considered by family law courts to be a community asset in California. The husband says “I earned those miles”, the wife seems to agree but believes he earned them on trips to see his -insert expletive- girlfriend. The miles are the medium to this couples’ financial decision-making process (dispute). By focusing on the medium (frequent flyer miles) rather than the benefit (free travel) of owning the medium, they have both failed to consider the decision at hand from a rational perspective. The real decision at hand is who will be awarded the right to free travel in the future not who gets the frequent flyer miles. The value of this free travel can be estimated fairly easily. Twenty-five thousand (25,000) miles might earn a one way ticket from Los Angeles to New York while the same ticket would actually cost $300. The wife lost sight of the benefit of the miles immediately when she associated the medium with the outcome in her mind, her cheating husband. She has missed the point by concentrating on the medium rather than the benefit.

The wife is very clearly upset by the situation and allows her emotions into the decision making process. I don’t blame her. The point of the illustration is to realize that economic theory tells us people will never concentrate on the medium because it has no value. The emotional turmoil of the dispute in the movie tells us humans often place a value on the medium and may ultimately make emotional decisions because of their tendency for medium maximization. Understanding Behavioral Finance can help mitigate emotion but we can never hope to completely remove it making Behavioral Economics vital to appreciating real life financial decision-making especially in Divorce Financial Planning.