All too often, financial products pretend to reward consumers for bad financial behavior: Credit cards offer rewards for consumers who spend more; high-APR credit cards dangle low promotional APRs and free balance transfers in front of consumers looking for a quick fix; even deals sites like Groupon encourage you to spend money you might not otherwise, in the name of savings. Is there no one who will reward you for being responsible and saving your money? Or is saving money supposed to be a reward unto itself?

Hakan Dahlstrom/flickr source

Of course saving money is important, but it’s virtually the exact opposite experience of getting something for nothing. In one instance, you have something and you put it away somewhere you can’t easily access it; in the other, you are given something immediately valuable for nothing at all. Savings is vegetables and rewards are candy — you’re better off sticking with one and not the other, but you’re hard-wired to seek out that which damages you. A site called SaveUp is looking to unite these two competing impulses by turning saving money and paying down debt into a game.

We sat down with CEO and founder Priya Haji in SaveUp’s San Francisco headquarters to get a look at how the program works, and why it does what it does.

“People are coming out of the recession. People want to focus on their finances more than ever,” said Haji. “And there’s not that many [rewards programs] that are aligned with their own best interests.” And so after Haji sold her last company, a marketplace for fair-trade artisanal goods, to eBay, she set out, with fellow Stanford grad Sammy Shreibati to create SaveUp: a rewards program that actually encourages responsible financial behavior.

Powered by Intuit, SaveUp allows users to connect all sorts of accounts — primarily savings and loans, but also checking and credit card accounts — and for each that they connect, they earn 200 credits toward a sort of virtual arcade that doles out SaveUp’s prizes and rewards. Every dollar you put toward savings earns another credit; every dollar you put toward paying down a debt earns you the same. The more credits you get, the more games you can play — but only up to three times a day.

The games range from winning an iPod Nano to small amounts of cash, to the grandest prize of all: $2 million. Some of the games are raffle-like, in that they always have a winner, and others are completely odds-based (like the $2 million lottery), and these are funded with contest insurance. Brands that partner with SaveUp help offset the costs of the premiums.

“The difference is you didn’t pay anything to enter,” said Haji. “You put the money in your own account.”

Everyone’s a winner

Of course, like a lotto player, you’re still, in some ways, staking your financial future on a prize with infinitesimally small odds; unlike a lotto player you’ll have saved $10 for every ticket you “buy” instead of wasting $1 — that matters. It effectively gamifies savings, said Haji, by making saving money and paying down debt the mechanism by which you satisfy your baser financial wants.

“The whole point of SaveUp is to get you to come back regularly,” said Haji. By getting you into the games, SaveUp actually encourages you to check your balance everyday, and to think about every single financial decision you make. In fact, SaveUp will soon be integrating financial education into its platform as another way users can earn credits — watch a video on dealing with student debt, say, and you might earn another chance to win $2 million.

“If I have an auto loan linked up and the interest rate’s kind of high, this thing is now telling me ‘Hey watch this two minute video about refinancing your auto loan.”

Prizes for saving is not an original idea, and SaveUp acknowledges that. Many banks in Latin America use private lotteries to help poor people save, but there are laws against that here in the United States, according to the Wall Street Journal. SaveUp, by virtue of being free (its costs are subsidized by bank and brand partners), can avoid dealing with this law.

Unlike in Latin America, however, SaveUp’s users tend to be higher earners. According to Haji, most of SaveUp’s users are in their 20’s or 30’s and earn between $75,000 and $125,000 — not bad! It might be a wise move, even if you earn less, to follow the smart set’s lead on this one. Even if SaveUp does tap into our baser, dumber impulses in order to make saving money fun, it still helps people save, and it seems that people at the higher end of the food chain are wise to it. Think about that next time you see people shell out $20 on lotto tickets at the liquor store — are they doing this regularly? what if they saved it? why is this even legal?

“Every time you deposit money or pay down your debt or educate yourself you can win 2 million bucks,” said Haji. “It’s long odds, but so is the lottery.”

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