July 2011

New Product Boosts Low-Income Saving

A Connecticut non-profit is testing a new product to help low-income people overcome their particular obstacles to saving money.

Innovations for Poverty Action is recruiting participants at the District Government Employees Federal Credit Union in Washington. The effort replicates a program already up and running in New York City.

The product’s name, Super Saver CD, is a bit of a misnomer. It is a hybrid of a bank certificate of deposit and a traditional savings account. Its low minimum deposit – $15 – removes a formidable obstacle for people who can’t afford to shell out $1,000 for a CD.

Innovations for Poverty Action was founded by behavioral economist Dean Karlan at Yale University, and it designed the Super Saver CD to help people to act in their own interest and save. The human behavior that drives the product’s design is that people don’t always do what they say they’ll do. So the Super Saver CD requires that people commit to regular deposits. The idea is to encourage saving regularly, a little at a time, like a savings account. But once the money is put away, it can’t be touched – that’s where a CD-style commitment comes in.

Rosa Sorto, who irons linens at a Washington laundry service for hotels and hospitals, said the program appealed to her because she can put the money away and forget about it. …Learn More

A macro image of US Savings Bonds.

Nudge to Save Doesn’t Work

The popular strategy of automatically enrolling people in savings plans didn’t work so well among low-income people.

Researchers found that when a tax preparation service slated 10 percent of filers’ tax refunds to purchase a savings bond, many balked and opted out of the program. The likely reason: they already had plans for how they were going to spend the windfall, including a pressing need to pay bills.

Automatic enrollment in 401(k)s, a strategy pioneered by behavioral economists, is gaining popularity in U.S. workplaces, largely because it works so well: a record 51 percent of U.S. employers used auto enrollment in 2010, according to Callan Associates, a benefits consultant.

Workers can still opt out, but employers have found that most of them remained in the 401(k) plan. This is due to inertia and also because employees know that saving for retirement is the right thing to do – they just needed a push.

But an experiment by economists at Swarthmore College and the University of Virginia, published recently by the National Bureau of Economic Research, “raises questions about the power of defaults.” …Learn More

The Bane of Financial Plans

There’s something about getting a will together, checking in on one’s retirement fund, or finally paying down that credit card that causes the procrastination gene to kick in.

In this recent video on CBS, Harvard behavioral economist David Laibson explains the reason for this tendency: “present bias.” Humans put more weight on the present than on the future, so it’s easier to delay the hard work until later. No surprise that’s true for financial tasks, which can be overwhelming, emotional, complex, or unpleasant.

“We humans have wonderful intentions about what we’re going to do,” he explains in this video. But when the time comes to do it, “We decide once again to push it further into the future.”

Laibson uses a simple example from a well-known 1980s experiment in which researchers asked people at Amsterdam workplaces whether they would want a healthy fruit snack, an indulgent chocolate bar, or potato chips next week. Most chose fruit.

On the day they were to receive the snack, the researchers said they lost the workers’ previous selection and asked them to pick again. The preferences flipped, and most chose chocolate.

Laibson goes on to apply the fruit/chocolate concept to financial decisions. The video was recorded last month, but the topic – human behavior – never gets old for Squared Away.Learn More

There’s an App for That Child!

Susan Beacham’s company has sold nearly one million of its piggy bank with four slots – for spending, saving, donating, and investing. She has now developed an iPhone application based on the iconic pig.

Children who use the clear blue piggy bank like to watch their money clink to the bottom of one of the four separate sections in the pig’s innards. Beacham has developed an entire curriculum around the four choices. The Money Savvy Pig has been adopted as a teaching tool by more than 200 Chicago public schools and by school systems in Seattle, North Dakota, Europe, and elsewhere.

The idea behind the game app, called “Savings Spree,” is the same: to help children “strengthen the muscle of choice and, therefore, their self-regulation and self-control,” said Beacham, chief executive of Money Savvy Generation Inc., a small, mission-driven company employing four people. …

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How People Think About Credit Cards

The austerity program millions of Americans adopted at the onset of the Great Recession is officially over: consumer debt is on the rise again.

Before we run our personal debt back up to its ceiling, it’s a good time to examine the different ways people think about their credit cards.

First, the economists. They have a clear definition of credit cards. The act of buying something on a card and adding to a balance is known as “dissaving.” The opposite is also true. Americans, for example, cut up their credit cards with a vengeance after the 2008 recession. They paid down some $180 billion in revolving credit card debt between September 2008 and April 2011. This gave a big boost to their savings, as far as economists were concerned.

But regular folks naturally link credit cards to spending. Kim Cooper, a Philadelphia financial consultant, said she used to feel that paying down a credit card meant she could buy more shoes or shop at Lord & Taylor again – with her card. This common mentality indicates just how integral credit has become to our buying habits.

The problem comes when the bill accumulates and becomes a monstrous financial obligation. And according to new data, Americans are piling up debt: in May, revolving credit – primarily credit card debt – grew by $3 billion, or 5 percent, to $793 billion (still far below the August 2008 peak of $974 billion), according to the Federal Reserve.

Overall debt also increased, for the eighth straight month. This includes revolving credit as well as auto, student, boat, and other personal loans.

Cooper eventually paid off her cards, but understands why people get into debt. “When I paid down the bills, it was never part of my thinking that a zero balance was the goal,” she said. The goal for her was being able to afford the minimum payment. “That’s not the way to think about it,” she said. …Learn More

A woman looking at a Guggenheim art exibit where an entire room is wallpapered with 100,000 $1 bills.

Money Is What You Make of It

Hans-Peter Feldmann, winner of the prestigious Hugo Boss Prize for contemporary art, displayed the precise amount of his $100,000 prize in this wall of overlapping dollar bills on display at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Feldmann’s art often groups similar items found in daily life to unearth their meaning. “Bank notes, like artworks, are objects that have no inherent worth beyond what society agrees to invest them with,” the museum said. “At its core, this formal experiment presents an opportunity to experience an abstract concept — a numerical figure and the economic possibilities it entails — as a visual object and an immersive physical environment.”

The exhibit is on display through November 2.Learn More

Income Source or Security Blanket?

Americans have squirreled away some $7.1 trillion in their retirement accounts. But once they actually retire, they don’t seem to know what to do with their money.

The U.S. income retirement system is in the throes of a foundational shift from guaranteed employer pensions to a system that puts most of the burden onto employees to make sure they have enough retirement income. I’ve been hearing recently about the heated debate on how Americans who are retiring are handling their finances under the new system.

Some worry that retirees are using up their personal retirement account (PRA) assets too quickly, while others believe they aren’t using the funds as retirement income, as intended when they were working and saving the money. By not spending it, they may be unnecessarily lowering their standard of living. …
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