From motorcycles to macroeconomics
- November 7, 2023
- Faith Bague-Sampson's unconventional journey to a Ph.D. in economics at UCI
A master's degree wasn't enough for Faith Bague-Sampson. "I didn't want to be anyone else's monkey," she says. A Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Economics, Bague-Sampson's sardonic wit has earned some fans.
"Faith is a breath of fresh air in the field of economics," says her advisor, economics department chair and professor Bill Branch. "Her wry sense of humor helps make even the most complicated of economic theories feel approachable."
It was a long, winding, motorcycle-riding road to get there. Bague-Sampson grew up in Laguna Hills and earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from Azusa Pacific University. Looking to get out from under her student loans, she learned to ride a motorcycle — it was cheaper than driving a car — and found work as a digital brand manager for the magazines Cycle World and Road & Track. After leaving the publishing world in 2010, she and some friends started a small business. It made her realize not only that she was drawn to understanding customers' motivations but also that she wanted to apply that knowledge on a much broader scale.
Disillusioned with the idea of being a therapist, she decided that the world of economics looked like a promising way to do that. But as she considered returning to school for a graduate degree in econ, she realized she'd need to bolster her math background. "I basically had to start from the place I left off in high school — which was not calculus," she says.
She took some prerequisite courses at a variety of schools, including UCI, where her wife was working. (An alumna and current academic advisor at UCI, her wife has been here for around 25 years.) In 2017, UCI hosted a diversity in mathematics conference. Bague-Sampson turned up, and an advertisement caught her eye. It was for a computational biology summer research program meant for UCI undergrads. Although she wasn't an undergraduate—nor was she even affiliated with UCI at that time—she knew she needed research experience to apply to grad school. So she took a shot and asked if there was any chance she could apply to the program.
As luck would have it, there weren't enough UCI students to fill the slots, and the fact that she did not yet have a master's degree meant she was qualified to receive funding from the program. (Bague-Sampson ultimately received a master's when she passed the qualification criteria for the UCI economics department as part of her doctoral degree.) "It was like, 'You don't need housing. And we don't have enough students. And we have to use this money… Sure, you can apply,'" says Bague-Sampson. "I hope UCI students start taking them up on this stuff! It's actually a really dang cool experience."
At the end of 2018, she applied for a graduate program herself and was shocked to be accepted. "They actually said yes!"
Now in her fifth year at UCI, Bague-Sampson researches how individuals manage household debt and means of payment. Her lens is situated at the intersection of household finance, experimental, and macro economics. "Some of our understanding of decision-making regarding that is lacking," she says. "We have a bunch of assumptions in econ about what people are looking at in terms of making their decisions, and it doesn't quite line up with the data. When you do experiments in the lab, it's showing they're doing other things."
She's currently experimenting with the credit card and co-holding debt puzzles. That is, she's looking at individuals with significant, liquid, low-yield savings — like a basic savings account — who revolve high-interest debt, such as a credit card, instead of paying it down. "If you revolve that debt, of course, you're paying quite significant amounts of interest. And so in theory, you would get a higher return, as it were, on your money if you use all that savings to pay off that credit card debt. Because then every dollar spent goes against the interest rates."
She wants to know why people don't do that. "Is it the timing of when bills have to be paid versus when you're receiving your income? And or is it that if you have to spend a bit of money, you have to borrow in order to cover your bills? Then when it comes payment time, are you sort of anchoring on that minimum payment and not really thinking about the entirety of the debt, but just looking at that number? Or if, say, you have it on auto pay, are you not remembering — or not even paying attention?" Her psychology background is evident in the way she approaches these questions. ("Yeah, I get some flack for that," she says.)
"We have a bunch of really good models, and they can account for a lot of the data — but they tell different stories. Most of them can account for some portion of the data, but each one of them relies on certain assumptions that are just flat-out wrong for the real world. I decided, let's just test these with actual people."
This type of research often doesn't address how people got into these situations to begin with, says Bague-Sampson. "Say your refrigerator broke, and you had to use a credit card in order to purchase the refrigerator. If you saved instead, it would take you like five months to build up the capital in order to just pay for that refrigerator. Would I tell you, 'Don't put it on a credit card?' No. I would tell you you should spend interest on that, because otherwise you're eating out the whole time."
Branch says that Bague-Sampson brings a unique and rigorous skepticism that has long been needed in their discipline. "Her work serves as a fundamental critique of traditional assumptions — especially the notion that humans always act rationally within their financial constraints. By employing lab experiments to test how individuals utilize unsecured credit, she not only challenges prevailing theories but also provides new insights that could reshape how we think about consumption and savings."
Bague-Sampson has yet to decide on her plans after graduating in 2025. "You're asking what I want to do when I grow up?" she ponders. She would like to work at a think tank, potentially, or maybe a university. In either case, she longs to continue her research. For now, though, she's content to be in Irvine. "It's a lower stress environment than some other universities," she acknowledges. "You know, we aren't necessarily competing at the expense of each other."
-Alison Van Houten for UCI Social Sciences