Common Cents Report: Financial Health Improvements Require Bold Behavioral Science Hacks

83 experiments with 62 organizations reaching more than two million people forms the foundation for a behavioral science playbook applied to LMI financial health

DURHAM, N.C., June 04, 2019 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- Common Cents, a financial research lab at Duke University supported by MetLife Foundation, today made public its 2018 Annual Report. The report details the impact of behavioral interventions designed to increase short-term and long-term savings, improve cash flow management, and decrease bad debt. Since 2016, Common Cents has conducted more than 83 unique projects and experiments with 62 organizations reaching more than two million low- to moderate-income (LMI) people.

The work is supported by MetLife Foundation as part of an ongoing effort to improve the financial health of LMI households in America. The effort, one of the most significant applications of behavioral economics of its kind, arrives at a critical time when households continue to worry about finances.

“Our body of work over the last three years has shown that applying behavioral science in product design can make a positive difference in the financial lives of individuals,” said Mariel Beasley, co-founder of Common Cents Lab. “Overwhelmingly, our findings have also proven that in order to deliver statistically significant improvements financial services providers must make similarly sizable commitments to change.”

Approximately half of Common Cents’ experiments have had a statistically significant and positive impact. In general, light-touch and superficial changes, like email reminders, often resulted in light or no improvements, while the largest wins derived from the largest changes, such as underlying product changes, switching defaults, or adding automation.

For behavioral scientists, these results demonstrate the tradeoff between easy efforts and meaningful results. For 2019, Common Cents will emphasize projects and partners committed to large scale improvements.

“Looking ahead to 2019 and beyond, our mantra for incoming cohort partners and new projects is ‘Be Bold,’” continued Beasley.

In addition to finding that bigger and bolder steps create more meaningful change then small incremental shifts, the 2018 Annual Report details a number of experiments across a wide spectrum of financial providers and products. In general, these projects focused on two broad approaches to initiating change:

Reduce Friction for Good Decision
By eliminating hurdles that prevent people from making good financial decisions, providers can create a faster, more obvious path to positive outcomes. To reduce friction in its 2018 projects, Common Cents emphasized three core strategies:

  1. Make the right behavior automatic
    Common Cents has designed an experiment currently underway with nonprofit financial technology company EARN that incentivizes savings. It tests whether offering overdraft protection helps make automatic savings less risky and more appealing for savers.
  1. Make the right choice the default
    In partnership with Duke’s Office of Personal Finance, Common Cents helped reduce the number of graduate students borrowing the maximum loan amount by default. Instead of showing students their total eligible loan amount, the program split the loan into one covering fixed costs like tuition and another for variable expenses like cost of living. Simply presenting loans in this way led to a 50% reduction in the number of students automatically borrowing the maximum loan amount.      
  1. Simplify complexity
    With 7 million Americans more than 90-days behind on car payments, Common Cents designed a new auto loan calculator to help buyers consider the total cost of car ownership – such as insurance and maintenance – to help them set more realistic purchasing budget. By distilling these additional considerations into a simple online calculator, the experiment reduced the size of loans borrowers felt they could afford from $15,000 to $12,500 on average.

Add Fuel to Increase Motivation
Using incentives for positive change can spur better consumer decision making. To add motivation, Common Cents again designed experiments using three strategies:

  1. Emphasize benefits that are immediate and tangible
    In a project with NetSpend, Common Cents helped increase the response rate to emails encouraging users to take advantage of new savings features. Simply by reframing the opportunity from “saving money” to “earning money” Common Cents increased the response rate by 4% overall.   
  1. Add new benefits that are immediate and tangible
    Common Cents redesigned the existing incentive structure for the City of St. Louis’ College Kids college savings accounts. Rather than providing parents with matched savings at the end of the year, the program is testing a new model that gives parents partial matches immediately if they sign up for automatic transfers. By creating a more immediate return, they hope to improve savings rates.
  1. Provide simple, relevant information at the right time
    IH Mississippi Valley Credit Union increased the short-term savings of its employees just by changing the day savings reminders were sent. By issuing an email reminder on the Monday before a payday rather than payday itself, Common Cents helped employees save an average of $120 more per month.

“Common Cents has clearly demonstrated that behavioral science can help shape financial products so that they lead customers to spend less, save more and better plan for the future,” said Evelyn Stark, Assistant Vice President, Financial Health of MetLife Foundation.

For detailed results of every 2018 intervention as well as those that are still in the field, to review a copy of the Annual Report, or to read more about participating partners please visit:  

About Common Cents Lab
Common Cents Lab, supported by MetLife Foundation, is a financial research lab at the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University that creates and tests interventions to help low-to-moderate income households increase their financial well being. Common Cents leverages research gleaned from behavioral science to create interventions that lead to positive financial behaviors. The lab is led by Behavioral Economics Professor Dan Ariely and is comprised of researchers and experts in product design, economics, psychology, public policy, advertising, business administration, and more.

To fulfill its mission, Common Cents partners with organizations, including fintech companies, credit unions, banks and nonprofits that believe their work could be improved through insights gained from behavioral economics. To learn more about Common Cents Lab visit

About MetLife Foundation
At MetLife Foundation, we believe financial health belongs to everyone. We bring together bold solutions, deep financial expertise and meaningful grants to build financial health for people and communities that are underserved and aspire for more. We partner with organizations around the world to create financial health solutions and build stronger communities, engaging MetLife employees to help drive impact. To date, our financial health work has reached more than 6 million low-income individuals in 42 countries. To learn more about MetLife Foundation, visit

Press Contact:
Michael Azzano
Cosmo PR for Common Cents Lab