Traditional commitment savings accounts encourage savings behavior by restricting withdrawals until a pre-set savings goal is reached. This study tests a natural extension of this design by offering households a new savings account that helps clients commit to a savings goal by mimicking the regular payment schedule and noncompliance penalties of a loan. Results show that the regular saver product is effective at increasing savings among clients on average. However, many savers appear to overestimate their ability to stick to their commitments, even with self-imposed penalty features.

Policy Issue 
Evidence suggests that microloans and informal loans are often taken out for consumption (such as school fees or wedding expenses) or for recurring business expenditures, rather than as a one-off investment (for example, to finance a land purchase or to start a business).1,2 If these loans are not being used to generate new income, it is unclear why individuals are willing to pay substantial loan interest charges rather than choosing to save in advance for these foreseeable expenses. 
 
Traditional commitment savings accounts3,4 allow users to restrict withdrawals until a pre-set savings goal is reached. Restricting withdrawals of past savings without requirement or incentives for the user to make future deposits may pose a challenge for savers who have trouble sticking to a regular deposit schedule. A natural extension of traditional commitment products to savings accounts would mimic the terms of a loan - such as frequency of payments and penalties for noncompliance - and provide people with a way to self-enforce their savings plan without incurring the cost of interest. 
Context of the Evaluation 
IPA partner 1st Valley Bank is a rural bank that offers microcredit, agricultural insurance, salary loans and other financial services. The study takes place in 22 low- to middle-income barangays (small administrative units) of Gingoog City, as well as in 9 barangays on Camiguin Island. The target population is low- to middle-income households between one and two jeepney (local public transportation) rides from the bank branch, who report having an upcoming expenditure (school fees, house repairs, appliance purchase, business expense, wedding, etc.).
Details of the Intervention 
This study is designed to ascertain whether a commitment savings product with fixed installments – a product which looks like a loan except for the timing of the lump sum disbursement and the interest charges – has any effect on individuals’ savings levels, loan take-up and welfare, and compare this to the effect of a commitment savings product. 
 
The product studied, called a Regular Saver Account, lets clients commit to make a fixed savings deposit every week, until they have reached their specified goal date and amount. This is presented to habitual borrowers as an alternative way to reach the lump sum needed for an expenditure they have specified. The commitment takes the form of an “early termination fee”: If clients fall more than two deposits behind their specified deposit schedule, their contract is considered “in default”, and the account is closed. They receive back their savings, minus the “early termination fee.” The amount of this fee is chosen by the client himself upon signing the contract, and framed as a charity donation.
 
Households that passed the screening criteria (having an upcoming lump-sum expenditure, willingness to see a financial advisor) were visited by a financial advisor and received a personal savings plan (limited to 3-6 months), and a free standard savings account. In addition, they were randomly assigned to one of three groups: a first group that was offered the Regular Saver (RS) product, a second group that was offered a traditional commitment savings product with withdrawal restrictions (WR), and a third group that served as a control and was not offered any additional products. 
 
A comprehensive baseline survey was conducted before the financial advisor visit. The survey identified individuals’ time preferences and financial networks, and measured risk aversion, self-control, and financial literacy. A similar endline survey was conducted six months later which included questions regarding outstanding loans, total savings, total expenditures, and satisfaction with the savings product for those who were offered any of the two commitment accounts. Additional administrative data on savings was obtained from the bank.
Results and Policy Lessons 
The study finds that demand for commitment is high, even in a low-income population with little previous bank exposure: Take-up rates were 27 percent for the Regular Saver (RS) product and 42 percent for the Withdrawal-restriction (WR) product, in spite of the fact that all individuals were given a free standard savings account immediately before they were offered the commitment products. Offering the RS product was highly effective at increasing savings: On average, those offered the RS product increased their bank savings by 585 pesos (U.S. $14 or 27 percent of median weekly household income) relative to the control group. The group offered the WR account saved on average 148 pesos (U.S. $3.50 or 7 percent) more than the control group. Among those who actually adopted the products; the RS clients saved 1,928 pesos and the WR clients saved 324 pesos more than the control group. In addition, those who were offered the RS product were more likely to buy the expenditure specified in their savings plan without borrowing for it.
 
This average effect obscures significant heterogeneity: 55 percent of RS clients defaulted on their savings contract, incurring their self-chosen penalty (between $3.50 and $7). Among WR clients, 79 percent made no further deposits after their opening balance, losing access to the money for those who had chosen an amount-based withdrawal restriction (45 percent). 
 
In summary, despite large positive average treatment effects, many savers appear to overestimate their ability to stick to their commitments, even with self-imposed penalty features. The study thus highlights a possible risk of interventions which involve commitment.

Sources

[1] Mullainathan S, Ananth B, Karlan D. (2007). Microentrepreneurs and Their Money: Three Anomalies. Financial Access Initiative.
[2] Karlan, D., and Zinman, J. (2012). List Randomization for Sensitive Behavior: An Application for Measuring Use of Loan Proceeds, Journal of Development Economics , 98, 1 (Symposium on Measurement and Survey Design), 71-75
[3] Brune, Lasse, Xavier Giné, Jessica Goldberg, and Dean Yang. (2011). "Commitments to save: a field experiment in rural Malawi." World Bank Policy Research Working Paper Series.
[4] Ashraf, N., Karlan, D., and Yin, W. (2006). "Tying Odysseus to the mast: Evidence from a commitment savings product in the Philippines." The Quarterly Journal of Economics 121:2, 635-672.