Time to buy into 'impulse savings'

Economics editor Chris Farrell

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

Stacey Vanek-Smith: If there's an upside to the last year credit crisis, a wave of bank failures, a massive recession, it could be that we've seen some huge changes. For now, at least, we're saving more money and some argue, it's the end of our culture of hyper-consumption.

So maybe next time you want to impress someone, instead of showing off your great new phone or great new purse, you can talk about how much money you have in your 401(k) or how many coupons you've clipped. OK, so maybe not the world's greatest pick up line but maybe not the worst!

In this week's Straight Story, Economics Editor Chris Farrell says there are ways to make saving easy.


Chris Farrell: Americans are saving like there's no tomorrow. Two years ago the personal savings rate hovered around 1 percent. Now it's jumped to more than 4 percent. It isn't just the numbers that have changed; the way we think and talk about savings is different. We not only praise thrift, we practice it.

Of course, the big question is how permanent will it be? Are we really embracing thrift or are we simply panic-stricken, fearful of losing our jobs? When the good times roll again -- and, yes, that day will come -- will we abandon our new found love affair with savings?

I say why not give a creative push to favor the "We're becoming more thrifty" side of the financial equation?

That's what Rory Sutherland, vice chairman at the ad firm Ogilvy, advocates. At a talk last month in Oxford, the ad man pointed out that we've created many opportunities for impulse buying, but that we don't make many opportunities for impulse savings. Let's change that.

What about mobile text campaigns that remind you to save rather than shop? How about developing a large red button for the home and whenever you hit it, $50 were dumped into your 401(k)?

Is this crazy? Maybe, but I like it. It isn't all that far-fetched an approach either. Here's a practical example: States promote gambling with their lotteries. I don't like it, but lotteries are popular. So, if you can't beat 'em, join'em.

We can make lottery savings funds. You play the lottery with all the excitement of potentially hitting the jackpot. But the state would then put some of the money into a savings account for you, perhaps for retirement. You own the savings account.

Put it this way: Alex Roberts, a scholar with the Institute for American Values, notes that about half of the poorest Americans spend some $12 a week on the lottery. If that money were saved and invested -- say, at an average return of 3 percent -- it could add up to some $30,000 in 30 years. A 6 percent rate of return? $51,000.

It's a win-win situation. Of course, some people object to combining the vice of gambling with the virtue of thrift. It doesn't bother me. Capitalism long ago created the ultimate casino that promotes savings: It's called the stock market.

So, here's a call for more innovative ideas that promote "impulse savings." In the meantime, what are we waiting for? Let's roll the savings dice.

About the author

Chris Farrell is the economics editor of Marketplace Money.

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