Why Getting Paid Increases Your Risk of Death

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Everyone looks forward to payday. Whether it’s a paycheck from your employer or benefits from the government, the influx of cash to your bank account is always a good thing, right? Not according to the latest research.

Researchers report that getting paid may be associated with a higher risk of death. Among Social Security beneficiaries, military personnel and people receiving tax refunds or state dividend payments, the risk of dying in a given month was highest on payday and for several days afterward.

Previous studies have linked spikes in monthly death rates to the first of the month, when many employees are paid. These spikes also occur soon after those on federal-assistance programs such as welfare or disability receive their benefits; researchers have speculated that much of the increase in mortality is attributable to substance abuse in this population (more money means more access to substances).

But in the current study, published in the Journal of Public Economics, lead author William Evans, an economist at the University of Notre Dame, says that the correlation “is much broader than substance abuse, and extends to accidents and heart attacks and also affects not just people on federal-transfer programs but people in higher-income groups as well.”

But isn’t having money supposed to help lead to long life? A steady paycheck should relieve stress and anxiety about finances and allow people to take better care of themselves, to access health care and to lower their risk of dying prematurely. Except that getting paid also draws people out of the house and into activities they may be less able to afford otherwise — that in itself can be hazardous, says Evans.

“Once people get paid, they go out and spend,” he says. “It’s definitely the case that there is a big increase in consumption around the first of the month, when people receive income checks. People go to the store more often then, they buy more lottery tickets at that time of the month, and they go to movies more during the beginning of the month. And since activity is related to mortality, we though that the mortality pattern would correlate with pay times, and that what we found.”

For instance, if people are out driving more and looking for ways to spend their income after getting paid, Evans says, they’re more likely to get into accidents. And if they are engaging in more activities because they have the security of money, such as playing sports or shopping or meeting up friends, then they are also more likely to trigger heart attacks or other health problems that increase their risk of dying.

Clearly, the daily risk of dying is still very small, but the data Evans and his colleague Timothy Moore at the University of Maryland collected point to a strong link between paydays and higher death rates. They used mortality data from the Multiple Cause of Death database, which records all deaths in the U.S., and compared information from this repository with patterns of paydays among different groups, from Social Security beneficiaries who are paid on the third day of the month and those who are paid based on their date of birth to military personnel who are paid on the first and the 15th.

To confirm the association, Evans and Moore also looked at other payment dates to groups with a more diverse population and in a range of income groups: those receiving 2001 tax refunds and residents of Alaska who get annual dividend payments from the state. In all groups, they found that the risk of dying was anywhere from 1% to 13% higher on and just after payday.

The researchers also wondered whether there was a way to lessen the deadly effect of the paycheck. Would paying people more frequently make them less likely to behave in ways that increased their risk of dying? Not necessarily. When some states began distributing military wages twice a month rather than once a month, the scientists found that the highest boost in mortality came after the second payday. Why? Because the first paycheck went toward paying bills and the mortgage or rent, which left much of the second check available for leisure spending. But Evans and Moore are studying whether adding more paydays or spreading benefit payments throughout the month might help lower mortality risk in other populations.

So what does the higher death risk mean for you? For one thing, there’s no need to decline your next paycheck. Much of the increased risk is attributable to behaviors that we can control, such as how much and what type of activity we engage in. How we spend our money is, after all, up to us. And in many cities and states, police and law enforcement are already well aware of the dangers of payday. They enhance patrols for drunk drivers and other crimes when the checks go out.