Small Bank's Behavioral Experiment Spurs Saving with a Lottery

Register now

Some consumers tuck money away for the future, while others hope they win the lottery. A small bank in Virginia is bringing those habits together by giving savers a chance at a jackpot.

Blue Ridge Bank in Luray, Va., last month launched Jackpot Savings, a deposit account that can be opened online and gives customers a chance to win cash prizes in a drawing. Depositors get an entry into the lottery for every $25 they save.

The account is designed to boost core deposits, distinguish the institution's offerings among a largely commoditized industry, and inspire people to save at a time when most people say they don't have $400 saved up for unexpected expenses.

"It's not every day a $254 million-asset bank gets to be at the leading edge of innovation," said Brian Plum, president and chief executive of Blue Ridge Bank. "It's something we are really excited about."

The bank said it will award one customer with $200 and four customers with $50 each month, while the annual grand prize is $5,000.

The savings account with a twist represents part of a larger trend of tweaking the product to appeal to a broader audience. Qapital, Digit and USAA all launched mobile apps this year to try to inspire users to tuck away small amounts every few days through alerts, gaming techniques and playful messages, for example.

Of course, the savers aren't earning much on their deposits given interest rates, but that's not really the point. It is a method to encourage people to do what could seem otherwise daunting or hopeless: save money.

"If you take these examples from a behavioral perspective then you start to see these incentives as ways for consumers to replace high-cost credit," said George Hofheimer, chief knowledge officer at Filene Research Institute, in an email. "So now a stable (but non- or low-interest earning) savings of a few hundred bucks starts to look pretty sweet. ... Now they have free cash flow, which enables stability."

Blue Ridge introduced the prize-linked savings account on July 1 — the first day it was legal in Virginia to do so and on the heels of federal legislation passing in December that made such accounts lawful for banks. Blue Ridge announced its first winners in early August.

Credit unions in a handful of states have been able to make available similar offerings for years, and a crop of startups like SaveUp have been trying out a variation of the prize idea through mobile apps. The U.K. has had a similar program in place for decades that has proven popular with consumers, too.

The concept has been successful in bringing more people into the banking system for those U.S. institutions already offer it.

According to D2D — a nonprofit that collaborated with Filene to create and study the initial prize-linked savings for credit unions called Save to Win — the cumulative savings from 53,589 accountholders across 62credit unions from 2009 to 2014 was $115,827,787. That's $2,161 per person.

Blue Ridge Bank is one of the first — if not the first — banks in the U.S. to offer consumers a chance to win extra cash for putting small sums away toward what are likelier shorter-term goals like emergency savings or a vacation fund. Many of the existing iterations use the jackpot in lieu of interest, but Jackpot Savings deposits currently have an annual percentage yield of three basis points.

A chance to win a prize may help spark a savings habit among low-income individuals,various academic research has found.

"The lottery ticket [concept] gives them hope for riches and upside potential," said Meir Statman, a professor at Santa Clara University who studies behavioral finance.

Jackpot Savings is funded through advertising budget and Plum said he expects it to have broad appeal.

"We tend to be drawn to sort of upward possibility," Plum said. "Hope springs eternal, as they say."

Plum sees an opportunity for banks to rally together so they offer bigger prizes.

"People are really drawn to a big prize number," he said. "It creates more excitement... I would love to see more banks doing this."

More states, of course, will have to make the practice legal before the program can scale. And passing such legislation has gotten push back from states under the perception it will cannibalize sales of state lottery tickets, among other things.

Looking ahead, Plum and Hofheimer say they could see how vendors, which smaller institutions rely on, could help shape a more unique mobile experience to drive even more engagement. Apps are seen as a mechanism to build savings habits as they are almost always near the body and the majority of Americans own smartphones.

But for now, Blue Ridge plans to use social media, signs in branches, radio ads and word-of-mouth to increase awareness on Jackpot Savings, which can be accessed by the standard mobile banking app.

Still, Plum recognizes the biggest challenge for the atypical account will involve education.

"We are not rolling out a product the bank down the street [launched] six months ago," said Plum. "People are like, 'Wait, you are doing what?' Then they get excited."

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.
Community banking