Monday, September 30, 2013

How to increase savings: add a lottery!

Households with low incomes save little. In one way, this should not surprise us, as their propensity to consume is high because the marginal utility of consumption is high. If they temporarily have low income, this is not a problem at all. However, if you have persistent low income, then you absolutely need to accumulate some savings to supplement any retirement pension income. This does not seem to be happening, and a frightening share of the population is hitting retirement age with little in the bank. Even worse, the use of lotteries and other gambling operations seems to be rather popular for lower incomes. While one can rationalize playing an actuarially unfair lottery under some circumstances (see here), it is generally considered to be a poor use of scarce income. Now, could one use the temptation of lotteries to get low income households to save more?

Kadir Atalay, Fayzan Bakhtiar, Stephen Cheung and Robert Slonim show one can combine saving accounts effectively with lottery jackpots. In an experiment conducted online in the US, they had participant allocate funds under various savings schemes. While this is not quite like the real world, it still reveals some interesting findings. Introducing a jackpot lottery does indeed increase savings, and significantly so (the authors find a 12 percentage point boost). These savings come both from delayed consumption and reduced lottery participation outside of the savings account. And all these effects are stronger among those with lower incomes. Can we believe those results? After all, the jackpots in savings lotteries are supposed to be "life changing", something that such an experiment cannot simulate. But it is encouraging to still see a strong impact.

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