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Save More Tomorrow™: Using Behavioral Economics to Increase Employee Saving

Richard Thaler, Shlomo Benartzi

Journal of Political Economy 112(2004): S164-S187.

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As firms switch from defined‐benefit plans to defined‐contribution plans, employees bear more responsibility for making decisions about how much to save. The employees who fail to join the plan or who participate at a very low level appear to be saving at less than the predicted life cycle savings rates. Behavioral explanations for this behavior stress bounded rationality and self‐control and suggest that at least some of the low‐saving households are making a mistake and would welcome aid in making decisions about their saving. In this paper, we propose such a prescriptive savings program, called Save More Tomorrow™ (hereafter, the SMarT program). The essence of the program is straightforward: people commit in advance to allocating a portion of their future salary increases toward retirement savings. We report evidence on the first three implementations of the SMarT program. Our key findings, from the first implementation, which has been in place for four annual raises, are as follows: (1) a high proportion (78 percent) of those offered the plan joined, (2) the vast majority of those enrolled in the SMarT plan (80 percent) remained in it through the fourth pay raise, and (3) the average saving rates for SMarT program participants increased from 3.5 percent to 13.6 percent over the course of 40 months. The results suggest that behavioral economics can be used to design effective prescriptive programs for important economic decisions.


Mobile-izing Savings with Automatic Contributions: Experimental Evidence on Dynamic Inconsistency and the Default Effect in Afghanistan

J Blumenstock, M Callen, T Ghani

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Through a field experiment in Afghanistan, we show that default enrollment in payroll deductions increases rates of savings by 40 percentage points, and that this increase is driven by present-biased preferences. Working with Afghanistan’s primary mobile phone operator, we designed and deployed a new mobile phone-based automatic payroll deduction system. Each of 967 employees at the country’s largest firm was randomly assigned a default contribution rate (either 0% or 5%) as well as a matching incentive rate (0%, 25%, or 50%). We find that employees initially assigned a default contribution rate of 5% are 40 percentage points more likely to contribute to the account 6months later than individuals assigned to a default contribution rate of zero; to achieve this effect through financial incentives alone would require a 50% match from the employer. We also find evidence of habit formation: default enrollment increases the likelihood that employees continue to save after the trial ended, and increases employees’ self-reported interest in saving and sense of financial security. To understand why default enrollment increases participation, we conducted several interventions designed to induce employees to make a non-default election, and separately measured employee time preferences. Ruling out several competing explanations, we find evidence that the default effect is driven largely by present-biased preferences that cause the employee to procrastinate in making a non-default election.


Member Centered Credit Union Banking: How behavioral insights can help credit unions better serve members


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A loan application should collect necessary information while providing a painless, easy, and engaging experience for members and potential new members. Our recommendations for improving the loan application process were driven by three behavioral principles essential to the design of any human process: (1) reducing perceived hassles and uncer-tainty wherever possible; (2) avoiding jargon; and (3) designing with potential user error in mind. Our recommen-dations for Alliant included a new process timeline to more accurately set applicant expectations and reflected progress through the application; reframing key decision points to ensure users do not accidentally cancel their applications; and revising language that may be unfamiliar to some applicants, such as “collateral,” “debt-to-income,” and “co-borrower.” These principles and recommendations may seem simple, but through our work we have seen how even small changes can have big impacts on client behaviors. Moreover, as service designers, intimately aware of the loan process, it can be difficult for financial experts to design financial products and services that feel intuitive and easy to understand to new users. Alliant has incorporated the majority of our design recommendations into the new loan application process.