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Persuading us to save not spend our tax refund

Tax forms from previous years are displayed. In a new experiment, researchers will track a TurboTax reminder that urges taxpayers to save refunds.

The average tax refund last year was $2,800 -- enough to feel like a bonus pay check or a surprise inheritance.

“Many people, when they get that refund check, it’s their one day of the year of solvency,” says Richard Thaler, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago. “I’ve preached that we should try to exploit this opportunity by making it as easy as possible to take some of that money and save it.”

That’s the idea behind an experiment by Washington University in Saint Louis and Intuit during tax season this year. Approximately 1.2 million households that use Intuit’s free TurboTax to file their taxes will see their refund amount and, at the same time, they might see a suggestion for much of it they should save.

One potential message reads, “Have a family or thinking about starting one? Start planning a bright future for them.”

Tax filers will then have the option to send their refund or a portion of it directly to a savings account or use it to buy a U.S. savings bond.

It’s crucial to give people an easy way to save before they have their checks in hand, says Michal Grinstein-Weiss, an associate professor at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University.

In fact, she calls it the “golden moment.”

“That’s the moment when they need to decide what they’re going to do with it,” she says. “And that’s when we’re intervening.”
Grinstein-Weiss will use a control group who don’t receive the messages to see if the approach increases savings.

She’s hoping that she’ll succeed where the recent financial crisis did not. Despite an initial uptick in savings during the height of the recession, savings rates did not significantly change.

Harvard professor Brigitte Madrian says, actually, this new experiment has a better strategy than the crisis.

“If you got an email in your inbox that said, ‘The financial crisis is happening, do you want to save more, click here,’ that would lead to bigger behavioral changes than just people watching it on the television,” says Madrian.

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