Nudging Time and Money

Many people have a spare change jar, where they accumulate change until the jar fills and then take it to the bank or change machine to turn into bills. For them, this works as a kind of forced savings. Banks’ keep-the-change programs, where debit charges and checks are rounded up to the nearest dollar and the difference is transferred to a savings account, are based on the concept that saving in small increments adds up to big balances over time.

Ricardo Young, a 55 year old assistant grocery store manager I met recently, found the jar works better than a bank account. Every week, he purchases ten-dollar rolls of quarters from his employer, takes them home, and empties them into his change jar. For Ricardo, this works as a way to save an extra forty dollars a month. At today’s interest rates, he is hardly missing out on having the money in the bank. If this kind of discipline is what helps him not spend it, I am all for it.

Many of us have tricks we have used to keep us from doing what we should not do, and to encourage us to do what we should do. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein wrote a book on this subject: Nudge.

In the 2000s, a bank in the Philippines offered a quit-smoking nudge. Smokers who wanted to quit would open an account with a dollar, then for six months would deposit the money they would otherwise have spent on cigarettes. At the end of six months, the account holders were given a urine test. If the test was negative, the smoker got the money back with interest. If the test was positive, the money was donated to charity. A study by MIT’s Poverty Action Lab showed those who wanted to quit were 53 percent more likely to achieve their goal using the bank’s program.

A simple but powerful example for me was a time management nudge suggested by my husband, Skip. I used to have a big long To-Do list that I carried with me everywhere I went, like luggage. One day I was complaining about how long it was and how I never seemed to get everything done. He took one look and said, “Well no wonder – you have a year’s worth of work there.”

He suggested I calendar each task, and schedule more time for each item than I think it will take. I had more than 120 items and started trying to put them on my calendar. I found out I could realistically only put 3 to 5 per day. This forced me to prioritize, but also to recognize that many of the tasks were not that important. My time was my limiting factor.

Now when a calendared task is staring me in the face, I am more likely to do it. I think his exercise helped me recognize I have to choose my tasks wisely, because I don’t have forever. Funny how all my life I have recognized money is finite, but often failed to remember that time is, too. In fact, we can find ways to make more money, but we can never make more time. We can only make more life with the time we have.

Are you as good at saving your time as you are at saving your money, or could you use a nudge in one direction or the other? What time or money nudges have worked for you? Comment here or drop me a line at

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