Case Study

Leveraging the Power of “Almost”: Testing Near-Wins in Prize-Linked Savings

Community Empowerment Fund (CEF) enables sustained transitions out of homelessness and poverty. CEF provides matched savings accounts, financial education, workforce development and relationship-based support to individuals experiencing or at risk of experiencing homelessness in Orange and Durham counties of North Carolina.

To help increase short-term savings, CEF provides matching savings accounts – Safe Savings Account (SSA). When members set up the Safe Savings account, they create a savings goal – a specific amount of money they want to save. CEF provides members with a 10% match when Clients reach their goal (a dollar amount) and when they complete eight financial coaching sessions.

While many CEF members create an account, 40% of them never actually make a deposit. Even for those who make an initial deposit, the probability of them making a tenth deposit decrease to less than 5%. We partnered with CEF to increase sustained savings among their members.

Behavioral Diagnosis and Key Insights

Our behavioral diagnosis included a review of CEF account and member data, a review of the CEF online program delivery system and nine in-depth interviews with CEF staff, volunteers and community housing partners. Our behavioral diagnosis revealed the following key insights:

  1. Members anchor on the maximum match amount and set overly ambitious savings The Safe Savings Account offers a 10% match on up to $2,000 in savings. This means that, at most, members can get a match of $200. When the account is described, the $200 amount is often highlighted because it’s the maximum amount and it’s a concrete number (rather than a percentage).

This leads some members to set savings goals that will take them a very long time to achieve.

  1. The benefit of the Safe Savings Program is far off in the The idea of a match sounds appealing and probably creates some of the momentum for setting up the account and making the initial deposits. However, saving money takes time, and the reward for saving doesn’t happen until the entire goal amount is saved.


Based on the behavioral diagnosis, we designed an intervention that would:

  1. Encourage early use and adoption of the Safe Savings Account
  2. Bring the benefits of the account closer to the present
  3. Encourage use across a time period when attrition is the most common

In order to do this, we created a virtual slot machine around deposit activity. For a six month test period, any time a member makes a deposit, they will have the opportunity to win a small amount of money that will be applied towards their goal (there are three possible slot machine outcomes). While the opportunity to “play” the slot machine is available to all members, we are particularly interested in learning if the possibility of short-term rewards will lead more members to start saving.

Experimental Condition

short term rewards will lead more members to start saving

We will also be testing what combination of slot machine outcomes (win, no win, etc.) increase the likelihood of the member making a third deposit. Our hypothesis is that a member who doesn’t win on the first and second deposits is less likely to make a third deposit compared to members who experience any type of win (big or small) early on. We are curious to learn how the amount of the reward and the experience of a loss impact deposit activity.

For example, we are interested in seeing if a “near loss” (which still comes with a small reward) is more motivating than a big win, since the possibility of a larger reward in the future still exists.

This experiment is still in development. We expect to launch in Q1 2018.