Case Study

Using Visual Goal Setting and a Postcard to Future-Self to Increase Retention

Recent evaluations of financial coaching provide evidence that coaching is a promising approach that leads to changing financial behaviors and improving financial health. However, these evaluations showed that the success of coaching is moderated by the participant’s engagement.

For financial coaching to improve a participant’s circumstances significantly, the participant has to commit to it. Our own analysis of financial coaching participants mirrors these findings.

Participants who attend three or more sessions (including two in-person sessions) were more likely to find a job, keep their job after 180 days, and establish a credit history.

These effects could be attributed to self-selection (people who are already committed to employment may naturally continue with sessions) but we also suspect that financial coaching has an independent positive effect on outcomes.

Figure 1: Experimental Condition

Therefore, improving retention and engagement among financial coaching participants would increase the impact of the programs. But what are the most effective ways to do that? Over the past 18 months, we have partnered with Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) to tackle just this problem. Working with their network of Financial Opportunity Centers (FOCs), we explored behaviorally informed strategies to improve the retention of financial coaching programs.

Behavioral Diagnosis and Key Insights

The strategies we designed were based on the in-depth qualitative research we conducted at 29 FOCs across five different states.

During these trips, we had one-on-one interviews with financial coaching participants about their experiences with the program. We also spoke with financial coaches about where in the process they see clients struggle and what kind of strategies they use to engage them. In addition to the qualitative work, we also analyzed administrative data provided by LISC to look for trends in retention.

From this work, we identified a number of barriers that might prevent a financial coaching participant from fully engaging with the program. We think two barriers are especially important:

1. Financial coaching offers value that materializes in the future, but many participants are focused on short-term This mismatch means that some participants may not fully connect with the long-term goals they set as part of the coaching process.

2. Some participants put off working with a financial coach until a certain point in the future, such as when they secure This means that some participants may drop off more quickly during the early sessions.


Based on these insights, we developed an intervention that tests two behaviorally informed strategies. In the first strategy, financial coaches took participants through a visual goal setting exercise. Participants were presented with a set of eight photos and asked to select one that represented what they wanted their financial future to feel like. This prompted a conversation about why they identified with the selected picture.

This visual goal setting exercise draws on research suggesting that we connect with images differently than we do with abstract ideas. By structuring a long-term goal setting exercise around visuals, participants were able to connect with their goals in a more meaningful way.

Furthermore, we purposefully selected eight photos that were conceptual, allowing participants to imbue them with their own meaning. In doing so, the photos allowed participants to connect with their goals on an emotional level. Half of the financial coaching participants were asked only to pick a photograph.

The other half were asked to use their answers from the visual goal setting exercise to fill out a postcard written to their future selves.

They were unaware of the fact that they would receive the postcard the next time they missed a meeting. Reminders such as the postcard can play an important role in making our previous intentions more salient by bringing us back to the moment when we set those intentions. The postcard not only serves as a reminder of the motivation participants felt during the session, but it also makes the coach’s contact information readily available.

Figure 2: Control Condition

Figure 3: Experimental Condition


Enrollment in the experiment ended in October 2017. In total, we rolled out our intervention to 741 financial coaching participants in ten different cities. We will continue tracking outcomes for these participants for the next three months.

Specifically, we will be tracking retention, which we define as having attended three or more financial coaching sessions within three months, as well as the length of time between sessions. We expect to share results in Q1 2018.