● Willpowering up
The Web site StickK, co-founded by two Yale University professors, is designed for those times when willpower isn’t enough to achieve your goals. On the site, you might commit to repaying credit card debt, keeping track of your spending or saving money by bringing your lunch to work. To add motivation, you can put money on the line. If you fail, it goes to charity. For even more motivation, you can commit to having it sent to a political organization you hate. You also can choose a “referee” — say, a co-worker who knows your lunch habits — to make the final determination and keep you honest.
What lowers energy use? Behavioral research shows appeals to citizenship and the environment and even promises of cost savings fall flat. Peer pressure, however, works. Opower is a company that uses that insight to redesign electric bills. A typical Opower bill might point out you’re using 10 percent more energy than your neighbors and offer suggestions for how to lower that. Now serving more than 90 utilities around the world, Opower says its personalized messages lower overall energy use 1 to 3.5 percent.
The app Level Money provides a constantly updated view of how much spendable cash you have, after taking into account your savings goals and ongoing bills. While this can help you think twice before making unaffordable impulse buys, it can also give you permission to live a little. Those who are otherwise meeting their financial goals “don’t have to feel guilty” treating themselves to an expensive dinner, said Level’s vice president of design Robert Suarez.
“Did you call the cable company yet?” That’s not your spouse or your inner-nag bugging you. That’s a notification on your phone from the app Lift. It’s based on the idea that committing to a firm goal is more effective than vaguely berating yourself every day. Users can sign up for dozens of plans, from an 11-step plan to “stop being a workaholic” or an 11-step plan for “how to live a Spartan life” to non-financial goals such as flossing, dieting and exercise. Users can create their own plans and cheer each other on.
The water bill’s due, says the alert from the app Check. In fact, it was due three days ago and you ignored earlier alerts. But the app tried you again now because it could see that your paycheck just cleared. By analyzing the behavior of the 10 million users who aggregate credit card, bank, loans and other accounts with them, Check finds that, even if there’s money in their accounts, “a lot of consumers choose to wait to pay the bill until they get paid,” vice president of marketing Daniel Kjellen said.
Most people don’t particularly like hearing they’re deviants straying from social norms. Mint.com, the online personal finance site, frequently deploys such “social proof,” as the behavioral economists call the concept. The site might let you know you’re paying 167 percent more for auto insurance than people like you typically do, Mint.com’s Vince Maniago said. Or, it might point out that if you ate out two fewer times a week — bringing your restaurant visits in line with the average in your area — you could save as much as $1,000 in six months.
When the stock market drops, some investors might need reassuring from their advisers, and others might be better left alone. Online investment manager Betterment tries to distinguish between the two. If your past behavior suggests you’re prone to panicking and doing something stupid during market corrections, the start-up sends you reassuring messages. But if you’re a calmer and less engaged investor, you won’t be contacted. “By actually bringing this to your attention,” said Dan Egan, Betterment’s director of investing and behavioral finance, “we might be the ones stressing you out.”