Saturday, March 8, 2008

How to Improve the Effectiveness of Saving and Financial Education Programs? Simplify!

If, as argued in my previous blogs, saving decisions are very complex and financial literacy is low, one way to help people save is to find ways to simplify those decisions. For example, what may be more effective is to find ways to ease people into action.

This is the strategy analyzed by James Choi, David Laibson and Brigitte Madrian in a NBER Working paper. They study the effect of Quick Enrollment, a program that gives workers the option of enrolling in the employer-provided saving plan by opting into a preset default contribution rate and asset allocation. Unlike defaults, workers have the choice to enroll or not, but the decision is much simplified as they do not have to decide at which rate to contribute or how to allocate their assets.

When new hires were exposed to the Quick Enrollment program, participation rates in 401(k) plans tripled, going from 5% to 19% in the first month of enrollment. When the program was offered to previously hired non-participants, participation increased by 10 to 20 percentage points. These are large increases, particularly if one considers that the default rate is not particularly advantageous: the contribution rate in the most successful program is set at only 2%, with 50% of assets allocated to money market mutual funds and 50% allocated to a balanced fund. Moreover, Quick Enrollment is particularly popular among African-Americans and lower income workers (those earning less than $25,000) who, as the research mentioned before shows, are less likely to be financially literate. Thus, changes in pension design can have a significant impact on participation. Most importantly, this is a low-cost program. Here is a new and powerful suggestion: simplify!

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