Behavioral Economics and IDAs

In February, Prosperity Now hosted a webinar Behavioral Strategies for Successful Individual Development Account (IDA) Programs. The webinar was presented on behalf of the Assets for Independence (AFI) program, the largest source of federal funding for IDAs and featured former Prosperity Now Innovator-in-Residence, Mindy Hernandez. Mindy, one of the leaders in the field of applying behavioral economics research to real world challenges, Mindy presented on findings from behavioral research and provided strategies for asset building and IDA programs to improve program outcomes (for a recording of the webinar, please visit the IDA Resources website).

Applying Behavioral Economics to the Asset Building Field:
But how exactly can behavioral economic strategies help asset building programs? We all know about the benefits of opening a bank account, making regular deposits and saving for the future. Yet getting clients through the door and enrolled in an asset building program – like an IDA program or free tax prep – and follow through with their intentions to save money is often surprisingly challenging.

That's where behavioral economics comes in. Research and experimentation from the field are continuously finding new ways to help people act on their intentions and form good savings habits. Program "tweaks" can help:

  1. Improve program enrollment and retention;
  2. Promote better participation through automation, reminders, and simplified processes; and
  3. Enhance clients' capacity to follow through on their intentions.

During the webinar, Prosperity Now also announced the release of the Behavioral Strategies for Successful IDA Programs guide, developed in partnership with behavioral economist Mindy on behalf of the Assets for Independence (AFI) IDA Resource Center. The guide outlines easy, cost-effective tactics for improving IDA program recruitment, enrollment and retention.

Examples of Behavioral Economics and Asset Building
We think there are a lot of promising opportunities to apply behavioral economics principles to other asset building programs. You can find a lot of examples and research of behavioral economics in action in Prosperity Now's publication Applying Behavioral Research to Asset-Building Initiatives. In this paper, Mindy describes her partnerships with three different asset building practitioners to design and test behavioral program tweaks. What she found (and what other studies around the world have confirmed) is that little adjustments in a program can make a big difference in client behavior. Here are just a few examples of some effective strategies from the field (you can learn more about these examples in the webinar recording):

  • Mental accounting: An experiment in India working with low-income construction workers found that they were saving just three percent of their income. Working closely with social workers, the construction workers were asked how much they would be able to save beyond that 3% and asked to commit to either one savings goal or multiple savings. The workers were then paid every month with their earnings divided into two envelopes: one for saving and one for spending. Some workers received envelopes with a photo of their savings goal written down (for example, their children or a new motorbike). If a worker wanted to spend his savings, he would literally have to tear through the photo of his own child to get to the money!

    What the study found was that just dividing the money was incredibly helpful. Even more valuable, however, was naming the savings goal and adding the visual picture. Finally, the study also concluded that having multiple savings goals corresponded with a decrease workers' savings.

    How does this apply to my program?
    First, label saving goals: the more specific clients are about their savings goals, the more it will resonate and the more likely they will save. Second, literally separate money: just as people often create mental "buckets" of how and when they can spend their money, physically separating the money will encourage that clients follow through with their intentions. Third, be visual: using photos is a powerful tool to remind clients of why they are saving in the first place. Finally, keep it simple: the more complicated, and the more goals a client has, the less-likely he is to succeed or save money.
  • Well-designed reminders: Reminders are an easy and relatively inexpensive way to help people adhere to behaviors, like saving consistently or for entrepreneurs, filing quarterly taxes. Prosperity Now and Mindy have begun working with one IDA program to test the effectiveness of text messages to promote more consistent savings by young clients. Text reminder studies in abroad have shown positive results: clients that received texts reminding them to save increased their savings by 6%, and clients receiving a reminder with a message associated with their specific goal increased their savings by 16%.

    How does this apply to my program?
    First, be specific: The text message study shows a 10% difference in client savings between generic savings reminders and goal-specific savings reminders. The more personal the message is to the individual, the more powerful.

    Second, focus on the how: just as being specific about the goal is important (the end result), articulating the how and when (the means) can influence a client's likelihood to follow through on his intentions. It's not just a reminder to save, but to remember to "drop off your deposit to the bank downtown after you leave work."

Want to learn more about applying Behavioral Economics to your work?
Prosperity Now will be holding several behavioral economics sessions during the Assets Learning Conference in September. To learn more and to register, please visit We're excited about the synergies between behavioral economics and asset building, and we hope you are too!

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