Saving money. No financial behavior is more important in this era of DIY retirement planning. And yet few things are more difficult for more people.
To prod low-income people to save a little, foundations and the government design clever financial products or incentives – some work, some don’t. Academic researchers divine psychological tricks or behavioral mechanisms that might spur saving. Automatic enrollment in employer-supported 401(k)s is one such success story.
A different solution to the savings conundrum comes from two marketing professors at the University of Toronto. Experimenting on subjects around the world – residents of a small town in India, Canadian college students, parents in Hong Kong – they found that individuals are more successful savers if they identify and work toward a single goal. Setting multiple, competing goals – college, retirement, summer vacation, a new kitchen, and the Christmas fund – was less effective and even counterproductive.
“When people have multiple goals, they cannot decide which one is more important,” said author Min Zhao, whose paper with Dilip Soman is forthcoming in December’s Journal of Marketing Research. “They say, ‘I cannot decide. Maybe I’ll just do this later, and I might not do anything.’ ” …Learn More
Economists’ explanation for why people don’t save for retirement is that they “discount” the future, placing a higher value on today’s pleasures. Educators argue that people don’t have the information they need to save.
Psychologists have a new theory: people can’t relate to their older, retired selves.
To test this theory, Hal Ersner-Hershfield and collaborators at Stanford University devised a way to help their research subjects – college students – identify with those nebulous figures out in the future, their older selves. When they did, the subjects were more likely to save money.
The national media have already covered this research. But it’s worth sharing as The Journal of Marketing Research plans to feature it in a special November issue on financial decision-making. The experiment demonstrates the contribution by psychologists to our understanding of how we handle money. …Learn More
Every entrant to the workforce should be subjected to the same questions posed to California undergraduates in a new experiment about how well people understand compound interest.
Better to show the math than to explain it. Franny and Zooey just started working. Franny immediately begins depositing $100 per month – $1,200 every year – into her new retirement account, which pays 10 percent interest annually. Zooey doesn’t start saving for 20 years, but he puts in $300 every month — $3,600 annually — and also earns 10 percent interest.
In 40 years, Franny retires with $584,222 in her account – more than double Zooey’s $226,809.
Asked to calculate these future savings on their own, 90 percent of the undergraduates had vastly underestimated the totals in the experiment by Craig McKenzie at University of California, San Diego and Michael Liersch at New York University. Yet, this mathematical calculation is central to the financial well-being of most Americans. In 2009, more than half of all households were at risk of not having sufficient assets to retire, according to Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research, which hosts this blog. …Learn More
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
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
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
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. …