Using goals to boost savings

Punch card
Experiment Type
Field Experiment
Save more
Increase short-term savings
Focus Areas
Behavioral Concepts
Goal-gradient theory
Community Empowerment Fund (CEF)
Partner Type

What Happened

It worked. Giving members punch cards to visually track their progress were significantly more likley to make goal cut off dates and reach goal milestones.

Lessons Learned

Leveraging goal gradient theory, via punchcards, seems to be an effective, low cost way to help members achieve their financial goals.


The Community Empowerment Fund (CEF) is a nonprofit organization focused on enabling and sustaining transitions out of homelessness and poverty. Founded in 2009, CEF provides relationship-based support, workforce development, financial education, and matched savings accounts to individuals experiencing or at-risk of experiencing homelessness in Orange and Durham Counties of North Carolina.


Common Cents has been working with CEF to implement interventions to help optimize the creation of and contributions to savings goals. In this intervention, members were randomly assigned to receive a punch card to help them keep track of their progress towards their savings goals. Clients who made deposits towards their savings goals got their cards marked each time, while members who didn’t receive the punch cards were part of CEF’s programs as usual.

This intervention employed the goal-gradient theory, which suggests that people will work harder to achieve a goal as the target gets closer; the punch card served as a physical reminder to make deposits and as a tangible tool for tracking progress towards completing savings goals.


On average, members who received the punch card completed 49% of their goal by the cutoff date, while members in the control group completed 33%. Members in the punch card condition were also more likely to reach the milestone of 15% of their goal by a difference of 16% between the treatment and control groups.

With the success of this test, CEF has now begun providing punch cards to all members activating new goals.

The lessons from this partnership will inform our work and research on savings among unbanked populations. Looking forward, we intend to continue partnering with CEF to help members achieve their financial goals and enable smoother transitions out of poverty.