Our finances are a mess – could behavioral science help clean them up?

Katy Davis at the Conversation: “Typical approaches to solving problematic finances are either to “educate” people about the need to save more or to “incentivize” savings with monetary rewards.

But when we look at traditional financial education and counseling programs, they have had virtually no long-term impact on behavior. Similarly, matched savings programs are expensive and have shown mixed results on savings rates. Furthermore, these approaches often prioritize the need for savings while treating debt repayment as a secondary concern.

Education and incentives haven’t worked because they are based on problematic assumptions about lower-income consumers that turn out to be false….

The good news is that a range of simple, behaviorally informed solutions can easily be deployed to tackle these problems, from policy innovations to product redesign.

For instance, changing the “suggested payoff” in credit card statements for targeted segments (i.e., those who were already paying in full) could help consumers more effectively pay down debt, as could allowing tax refunds to be directly applied toward debt repayment. Well-designed budgeting tools that leverage financial technology could be integrated into government programs. The state of California, for example, is currently exploring ways to implement such technologies across a variety of platforms.

But the public and private sectors both need to play a role for these tools to be effective. Creating an integrated credit-and-saving product, for example, would require buy-in from regulators along with financial providers.

While these banking solutions may not close the economic inequality gap on their own, behaviorally informed design shifts can be the missing piece of the puzzle in these efforts to fix major problems.

Our research indicates that people already want to be doing a better job with their finances; we just need to make it a little less difficult for them….(More)”