In a popular Saturday Night Live skit famed producer Bruce Dickinson suggests the band Blue Oyster Cult improve their hit song "Fear the Reaper" by adding "more cowbell."
The suggestion took the band by surprise. To everyone but their over-zealous percussionist the problem was that there was too much cowbell. Dickinson insisted. "I've got a fever," he exclaimed. "The only prescription is more cowbell."
When it comes to financial literacy efforts by credit unions, the same approach is often taken. The brochure isn't getting the results we want? Add more cowbell. No one is attending our financial education workshops? Just add more cowbell. No one is clicking the financial education link on our website? More cowbell.
Is it more cowbell we need, or a different instrument? Do we need a better brochure, or a completely different communications vehicle? Should we shuffle the slides in our PowerPoint presentation, or reconsider where, and to whom, we deliver our content? Does education necessarily have to feel like education, or can it be fun? Do we need to spend more money, or reallocate funds to something more effective?
Credit unions don't need more cowbell. We need to rethink our financial literacy education efforts altogether. Three key areas we must explore are:
1. Gamification. Gabe Zichermann defines "gamification" as "the process of using game thinking and game mechanics to engage audiences and solve problems." If Zynga can make plowing a field in Farmville engaging, Broderbund can encourage children to learn international currencies and capitals in "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?", and learning about U.S. pioneers can be fun in "The Oregon Trail", why can't we make learning about personal finances fun? Thankfully, the Doorway to Dreams Fund has been hard at work answering this question, creating games like Celebrity Calamity and Groove Nation to help children learn basic principles of financial management. Still, we can do more.
2. Anonymity. Consumers would rather publicly talk about sex, religion and politics than discuss their personal finances. In 2009 the Filene Research Institute's i3 Program created an online financial assessment tool called Debt in Focus to see if consumers would be more comfortable seeking financial guidance if they could do so anonymously. With over 350,000 financial assessments delivered through the program in its first year, the answer seems to be yes. How can we apply this lesson elsewhere in our efforts?
3. Choice architecture. Behavioral economists know that you can improve human behavior by changing the way choices are presented. How have we positioned desired behaviors? What investments in technology or processes are we making to help consumers save, make better purchase decisions, budget, and understand their spending habits? Behavioral finance theorist Richard Thaler found that helping consumers save more for retirement may be as simple as changing the directive "save more today" to "save more tomorrow."
Helping credit union members understand the difference between good financial choices and bad ones is a laudable goal. Nudging them toward the right choices through the way we structure our systems, pricing and communications, however, may be more powerful.
A new i3 idea called "The Lift" recognizes the value of choice architecture, reducing borrowers' interest rates on loans when they pay a certain number of payments in a row as agreed. If you want C paper borrowers to behave like A paper borrowers, the program seems to ask, why not reward them when they do? When lamenting the results of financial literacy education initiatives, too many credit unions consider the wrong two solutions: 1) Scrap the program altogether; or 2) More cowbell.
If we are truly interested in improving the woeful state of modern financial literacy, we can't give up or do more of the same. Instead, we need to rethink the way we design and deliver our guidance.
Matt Davis is the Director of Innovation at the Filene Research Institute.