The Savings App Designed by a Behavioral Economist

“We’re going after the 20 percent or 30 percent of your income that’s spent on crap.”

David Gray / Reuters
As humans, our failings are epic. Some of us eat too much, lie to ourselves, don’t exercise enough, and spend so much money that we have nothing left for that vacation in Hawaii. But technology, Dan Ariely believes, might save us from ourselves.
Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, is an investor and the chief behavioral economist at Qapital, a Swedish-startup geared toward encouraging Millennials to save.
Here’s how he explained the reason many young people fail to save—or spend—effectively:

The most difficult problem is our lack of desire to think about it. You go to the supermarket and you buy and buy and buy. People always underestimate. Even the cashier underestimates. We don’t add up all our costs. We are supposed to think about it and think of all the things we want to spend on now versus later. But the reality is, we live in the moment and we make decisions in a myopic way without thinking about the big picture. It’s really, really hard. So we don’t do it.

Ariely says the app will force people to think about the opportunity cost of money, or what’s given up (saving for college) to get something immediately appealing (another bottle of rare gin). Users of the app can set a target—a $300 budget for groceries—and designate a savings goal that any extra money under that target will go towards. (Ariely himself is saving for a car.) Users can also pre-assign money to do the things they mean to do, but don’t. For instance, every $3 coffee purchase can automatically trigger a $1 donation to a charity (and perhaps start curbing expensive coffee habits).

Research, conducted by Ariely and others, has revealed how product design can change hapless spending. He has found that how couples design their savings directly impacts how much they save (the research is not yet published).
Imagine two couples. With the first couple, each person has a salary and the money goes into their own accounts first. Then they put funds into a joint account to pay for household spending.
Couple two puts their salaries directly into a joint account and then takes money out to put into separate personal-spending accounts.

Here’s what tends to happen: If the money goes into separate accounts first, each person tends to contribute a percentage of their salary. But if they make different amounts and each puts 80 percent of their salary into the joint account, things doesn’t work out so well. If one person makes $100,000 and the other makes $10,000, one puts in $80,000 and the other $8,000. That leaves person one with $20,000 and person two with $2,000 in their individual accounts.

Ariely finds that the couples that put the money into a joint account first tend to pull out similar dollar amounts for their own spending and wind up saving more. “People think more long-term and the amount of savings is increased,” he says.
“The environment around us is not trying to get us to make long-term decisions. It is trying to get us to make short-term decisions,” Ariely says. He compares the inability to make sound financial decisions to the ability to lie:

What happens in dishonesty? We have a short-term desire to see life in a certain way and we are changing the facts in our mind to see things that way. Financial decision-making is the same. It’s as if we close our eyes to the facts and the truth. We need a mirror. Better habits. Codes of ethics makes rules for ourselves. The same thing is true here: you don’t want to face a tradeoff between shopping and saving every time. You want to create rules.

Qapital, the app, helps create those rules. George Friedman, the CEO and cofounder, told Tech Crunch, “We’re going after the 20 percent or 30 percent of your income that’s spent on crap … It’s that huge chunk of your money that you don’t remember spending or don’t care about at the end of the month.”

Ariely points to research on migrant workers in India to show that small changes can have big impacts. In one experiment, researchers gave workers their salary in one of three ways: Group one got an envelope with cash; group two got two envelopes with cash, equally divided. Group two spent less of it and sent more money home. Group three got envelopes with their kids’ names on them, and they saved even more.

“When you give it in one envelope they spend it and they don’t stop,” Ariely said. “When it’s in two and they get to the end of the envelope and they think about whether they want to open a new one, they stop and think about it. This was the decision point.”
“The money was allocated—it had an opportunity cost, it was colored it was named,” Ariely says. Apps like Qapital and others effectively let users create electronic envelopes (think earmarks). Visuals like these can help people emotionally invest in their goals.
Ariely’s own research found that in Kibera, Kenya, workers saved twice as much when they had a physical item to remind them of their savings (in this case, a physical coin). Another study by Michael Sherraden at the Center for Social Development at Washington University in St. Louis shows that just opening a college-savings plan can lead to parents investing more in their children’s education.
In the end, the research points to a central message: People need help to be who they want to be, and not the ones they usually are.

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