Gamifying savings

The lottery is the one pathway to wealth where poor people have an equal footing with rich people. Lottery players know the chance of getting rich with a lottery ticket is infinitesimally small. The point is that without one, the chance is zero.

What if saving could be like a lottery?

The idea of rewarding savings with prizes dates from at least 1694, when Britain, desperate to pay off war debt, lured savers with a jackpot. Prize-linked savings exist in some form in at least 18 countries today. Perhaps the experience most relevant for the United States is Britain’s Premium Bonds, established in 1956. The interest on the bonds isn’t repaid to the holders. Instead, it goes into a prize fund. Every pound savers put in (to a maximum of £30,000) gives them a chance to win a monthly £1 million jackpot plus a million different smaller prizes — all tax free. The program was begun as “Savings With a Thrill,” and the winning numbers were announced each month by celebrities.

At the program’s 50th anniversary, there was £32 billion in bonds — providing the government with capital at a cheaper rate than borrowing. Nearly 40 percent of Britain’s population — 23 million people — hold Premium Bonds. They are sometimes, but not always, the best savings deal — there is often a product whose return is better than the odds of what you’d win with Premium Bonds with average luck. But that’s the point: even though they might not be the left-brain choice, they get people to save.

From the NYTimes Fixes Blog, an idea to incentivize more savings. Doesn't sound any worse than most other ideas I've read to drive Americans to save more. In fact, it sounds better.