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What is an Honesty Box?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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An honesty box is a payment system where people who want a product or service deposit money at an unmanned station, rather than interacting with a clerk or checker. The term is a reference to the fact that people rely on the honesty of customers to pay anything at all, as people could opt to take products or services without paying. This approach to handling payments is most commonly seen in locations where the cost of maintaining a human presence to handle payments is higher than the losses from people who don't pay or underpay.

A simple example of the honesty box can be seen at some rural fruit stands. People may be present during the busy hours of the day, but the farm cannot afford to staff the stand constantly, and it may not be able to lock or secure the stand. It leaves fruit out along with an honesty box, asking passerby to pay for what they take according to the published price list. Similar honesty box arrangements can be seen with other rural businesses where people may want to make services available outside of business hours.

The cash box itself is typically sealed and fixed in place to prevent theft, although more trusting merchants may simply have a can on the counter for money. People paying under the honesty box system can consult a list of prices for products and services to determine how much they should pay. In places like community museums, the signage may encourage people to pay whatever they think the visit is worth, offering a donation based on the value of the visit.

Some people have attempted to implement a donation-style honesty box approach online. People can decide how much they want to pay for things like downloads of music and books. Some patrons may pay nothing at all, while others may submit varying amounts depending on how much they think the download is worth. Websites relying on user support may provide suggested donations, based on how many people visit and the number who are likely to donate.

Honesty boxes have mixed results, depending on the population and the product or service. Studies on human behavior in settings like an honesty box environment show that simple actions, like showing people how much other people are paying, can increase the honesty rate. If campers arriving at a campground without a ranger see someone else making a payment, they are more likely to do so themselves. Likewise, people seeing someone choose not to pay may follow suit.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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