There’s a Web 2.0, socially networked version of just about everything these days — including saving money for your goals. Sites like SmartyPig allow users to announce their financial goals to the world, network with other savers, talk about saving money on their other social networks and ask for help from friends and family. But does the social experience really help people save more money than they might otherwise?
Just the fact that several websites have put social networking together with saving isn’t enough to automatically say it’s a good idea. There are plenty of positives and negatives to the idea, so far, making it a surprisingly hard call.
Who Should Really Know What’s In Your Bank Account?
While I can name quite a few reasons to be leery of the social networking / saving combination, there is one in particular worth worrying about: who should know how much money you have — and what you plan to do with it? There are plenty of people who I don’t want to know what the contents of my wallet are, let alone what I have in my savings account. It goes far beyond the guy who always wants to mooch lunch off of me, too. I wouldn’t want an employer to get a good look at my savings goals: what if I’m planning for a long vacation that I haven’t told my boss that I plan to take? Or what if I’m saving for a goal that my employer doesn’t approve of? Think of how much damage a few photos on Facebook can do and then expand it to your financial decisions! I’m less concerned, admittedly, about the approach that websites like Wesabe take — allowing you to discuss your finances in forums and make the decision on how much information to share fore yourself.
On top of those privacy concerns, many personal finance sites worry me because of the potential for identity theft. Even if you’re only giving out your bank account numbers to websites you trust, every site that gets it — money management, social saving, etc. — is just a bigger chance that something will go wrong and someone will get access to your financial identity. Sure, it sounds a little paranoid, but sites like Mint have a long list of security measures in place because they need them. While having to give out your bank account number to make use of a service shouldn’t necessarily be a deal breaker, it should certainly give you pause.
Does Support Really Make A Difference?
The idea behind social saving is that the more support you get in working towards your goals (especially in saving money) the more successful you can be. In general, that’s a good argument: I know that I’m more likely to complete a goal if someone will hold me accountable for it. In terms of goal-setting, accountability does not need to be formal — just the fact that someone knows about my goal and will think poorly about me if I don’t complete it is enough to encourage me. It’s a relatively simple hack that can really increase your ability to move forward on your goals. That holds true for monetary goals just as much as any other ambition.
SmartyPig, in particular, makes the most of this incentive. It goes beyond informing friends and family about your goals. Instead, the site helps to engage them in the savings process — to the point of offering ways to ask your friends and family to donate to your cause. No matter the reason you might like that level of engagement on your own, it does seem likely to help savers significantly. Of course, just making mention of your goals in a conversation with a friend or a family member may be enough to provide the same benefit.
Does Social Saving Really Help?
Overall, it’s easy to conclude that social savings sites can be useful tools to create a support structure for yourself as you work toward a financial goal. It is less clear, however, whether the benefits that sites like SmartyPig offer outweigh the drawbacks to using them. It seems that, to a lesser extent, it’s possible to get the same effects without putting so much information about yourself out on the internet. But I don’t think that you can get the full effect with just a conversation or two with a friend. In some cases, it’s arguable that those benefits are worth putting all sorts of information about yourself online and allowing anyone to look at it.
The fact that some of these sites, including SmartyPig, can be very beneficial to our savings makes it harder to say no to them. In most cases, I would suggest that someone considering turning down 3.9 percent interest on their savings accounts — the rate that SmartyPig offers for money saved through its website — is out of their minds. Considering that many banks are dropping the interest rates they’ll pay on savings accounts, it’s almost a question of how much you’re willing to sell your information for. Either way, that interest rate can really boost your ability to save. There are plenty of sites that have made social lending an option — possibly a lucrative one — as well.
Which direction do you lean on this one? So far, I’m reluctant to put my savings goals up for everyone to see, but I’d like to hear your decisions.