The MoneyCard Dilemma

Should we gamify financial prudence?

I’m going to posit an assumption here: someone having a savings account with a balance larger than zero is a net positive thing. For that individual. For their family. For the community. For society as a whole.

If you happen to disagree with that then we’re arguing on two completely different plains of reality here, so you may want to go find another website to read.

If you agree, then keep reading, and let me also suggest that financial literacy is something that seems to be in disturbingly short supply in 2017. You may also then agree (a) that (assuming you have disposable income at all) not every cent you earn should be immediately spent and (b) that consistently saving a percentage of your income no matter how difficult that action might be is a core aspect of everything financial from escaping poverty through achieving sustainable wealth.

So technology, it seems, should be able to help us save our money at least as well as it helps us spend it. Tools that incentivize financial responsibility or reward personal budgeting seem like they could have great potential to unlock incremental changes to behavior that lead to lasting impacts in how people use and store money.

But is gamification the answer to that puzzle?

This isn’t a research blog. I should be very clear in noting that I don’t have evidence to support the opinions bubbling out of these questions. But I am asking those questions.

I recently encountered a social media post (a post I am of course remiss to relocate a few days later to share here) that introduced me to the Walmart MoneyCard Vault program… contest… service?

The basics of the incentive program are as follows:

Using a Walmart-branded MasterCard, customers can allocate a certain amount of money to “STASH” on their card. Every dollar they add to their savings account gets them an entry into a monthly prize draw.

The positives of this are obvious: saving money has been encouraged through technology in a simple, one-click app. An incentive-reward system has been created by a powerful, widely-reaching company whose customers (at least as far as popular opinion would have you believe) include a subset of folks who struggle with day-to-day financial prudence. And I would be among the first to applaud the business-to-societal stewardship of this. A business like Walmart incentivizing NOT spending all your money, building a small cash reserve, and perhaps even saving for a rainy day.

The flip side, of course, is that this is tied to a credit card and presumably, eventually, spending that money at Walmart in some form anyhow. But let’s give Walmart the benefit of the doubt and offer that this is at worst a mixed bag of marketing-based programming that adds more value to the lives the participants than it extracts.

The question still remains: Should we gamify financial prudence? Should we turn saving money into a contest, or a sweepstakes lottery? Should we attach a hope for a prize as the primary incentive to be smart with our finances?

And if we do are we teaching long term skills about how to manage money, live within our means, or are we merely creating a Pavlovian-type incentive to save when a contest, or some other measurable reward is dangled in front of the saver?

From the Can to the Should

I want to sell you something.

Ready to input your credit card details yet?

Just click heeeeeeeeee… No?

Well, never mind then. I don’t need them. I want to sell you something but it’s not going to cost you anything up front. Nope. No cash down. No fees. No investment. Well… Maybe some time. Maybe some thought. Maybe some effort. But no, not money.

I want to sell you something.

It’s an idea.

It’s an idea about unraveling this notion we have of digital technology: the capabilities of tech. We often talk about what technology can do. How much it is able to perform, what it is possible to create, share, process, and connect using our digital toys and tools.

Yet, maybe not often enough, we also casually consider the notion of what technology should do. How far we should take it. How far we should push it, though not in the sense of limiting it’s progress, but in exploring the branch of the technological tree that extends and suspends us out above precarious heights if we perchance loose our grip.

I’ve been fascinated by the notion of should for a long while, but that same notion tends to share a taxi ride with other tangential concepts: anti-technology, Luddite-leaning, analog-anarchists.

But I have a slightly different outlook than those ideas.

The idea that I want to sell you is about digital ethics: the should we…? of the internet age, asking not for a halt to progress, but a humanizing of progress. Looking not to a burdening of technology and business with abstract rules, but rather looking for ways to optimize the incentives that put people a bit more ahead of profits.

I’ve been thinking about should for a while now and I think I should start writing about it more. So, that’s what this space is about to become.


Hard reset. Take two.

Exactly a year ago today I flushed out this blog, wrote a long post about how I was going to reset and start writing posts from inside of my new philosophical-meets-technological perspective, pushed publish and…

Well, it’s been a year.

So, let’s try this again.


Lesson One? Sometimes you just need a good old fashioned control-alt-delete.

I’ve been posting on this blog for five years, but nothing I’d ever written was –if I’m being completely honest– working for me. For you. For anybody.

Does that make this blog a bad idea? Or a good idea poorly implemented? Or just an idea that went off the rails?

Credit where due, I was listening to the Freakonomics podcast the other day and there was an episode all about productivity. What makes us productive? Self-help ninjas doling out advice on the nature efficiency versus productivity versus busy-work. Part of being in the business of creatively producing content, is that your brain is always stewing away at ideas: to overwork a cooking metaphor, the back-burner is slow simmering a pot of clever concepts, and every once in a while the smell of it catches you just right, you dip a spoon in a taste, and…

So there was this podcast, and I caught a whiff of my stew, my FooBarn stew, that’s been neglected and simmering quietly on the back of the stove for a couple years. Every once in a while I’ll add a bit of spice or give it a stir, but nothing worth writing about. Sometimes literally. This podcast got me thinking: not just about being more productive, but about productivity itself. After all, I’ve been trying to write about user interfaces and finding a hook into the concept of why digital systems drive us simultaneously steaming mad and crazy with love.

Why? Productivity. We’ve been promised an epic digital revolution. Some of us have it figured out. Some of us are still floundering. And flounder is tough to get right in any stew.

So, a bunch of stagnant posts here have been set to invisible. Admit it, you won’t even know they’re gone. And in their place a new idea: thinking about information productivity, what it means, and putting it to work for us, all of us. Even you.

Stay tuned.