Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Savings Burden

I'm a behavioral economics junkie. I can lose a day reading Kahneman, Ariely, or Benartzi. Helping people overcome cognitive biases and behavioral defaults in order to take care of themselves financially is my life's work.

But sometimes I feel like we forget about the external forces that also support or impede financial goals. The conversation tends to take a decidedly "red state" (personal action and responsibility) or "blue state" (political/macro-economic framework) focus, and we lose the interplay of person-in-environment, which is the "unit" we are taught to examine in graduate social work programs.

I do some work with a non-profit that is in the process of freezing their pension program. To compensate, they are offering employees a 401(k) match up to 6%. In many companies and industries this would hardly cause a ripple, but for people who are already trying to live on a social worker's salary in one of the most expensive cities in the world, this is a huge challenge.

We can employ as million "opt-out instead of opt-in" tricks to get people to contribute more to their 401(k)s, but let's not overlook the great number of people who struggle to save not because of loss aversion, but because they have barely enough money to cover their essentials.