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Virtual SNL "Don't Buy Stuff" Financial Coach

As more transactions go through smart devices, we can add a financial coach linked to your bank/credit cards to automate & help decisions.

Photo of Josh Anon

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Who does this idea benefit, who are the main players and what's in it for them?

We're absolutely in a consumerist society where people are encouraged to buy stuff, and retail therapy can override our decision making skills. See this SNL skit: But what if when you went to checkout from a store using your phone, your phone said "no" because it knows you can't afford the purchase. This benefits consumers, limiting their debt, and banks by improving customers' credit.

How is your idea specifically using the power of communities to improve financial opportunities and resources?

This idea is really about changing a community value: don't buy stuff you can't afford just because advertising makes you want it. Be aware of what you're purchasing. I don't see a clear idea yet of how to integrate this with a community in a positive fashion, but perhaps it'll inspire someone else.

What early, lightweight experiment can you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

I could imagine a prototype app that knows the balance of your checking, savings, and investment accounts (and ideally credit card balances/limits). You could ask if "can i buy something that costs $X," and it gives you a yes/no answer based on not just immediate balances but debt, what you should be saving, etc.. A next step would be having the app help you make a savings plan to save up to buy the item, perhaps even tied to a coupon hunting site to help you find the best deal when you can buy.

What skills, input or guidance might you be seeking from the OpenIDEO community to help you build out or refine your idea further?

How could this work with a community? How could this be effectively implemented for someone who doesn't use Apple Pay/Google Wallet for purchases? What are the right incentives to get people using this since it won't be enforceable (just pay with a regular credit card)? Would it be feasible to have a special credit card that requires showing a "yes" answer to the cashier when using the card?

This idea emerged from:

  • An individual

As payments become virtual--or at the very least people often have connected devices with them most of the time--how can we add a financial intelligence layer that's linked to payment processing?  Could there be a little voice that actively tells you "don't buy this."  Hopefully this will implicitly shift people's thinking to consider if they have the funds to purchase something before doing so rather than indulging in retail therapy and wild debt.

There are some potential use cases for the system, especially if it could evolve beyond a simple in-the-moment yes/no system to a smarter financial coach.  All use cases are an ideal world where the app's connected to your savings/checking/credit card accounts.

- The first use case is the always-on financial coach.  People often don't know what the right, smart behaviors to set themselves up for financial success are, and instead of trying to teach everyone, why not codify it and have it done for you? A basic feature might be automatically transferring money to your savings account when you deposit a paycheck and automatically making payments to your credit cards, helping to pay off any debt.  To encourage people to really dive into these features, this could be connected with my gamification idea:

- The second part would be making the coaching be in-the-moment, linked to payment processing.  This is when I'm in the store and considering buying something, the app tells me if I can/can't afford it.  And when I'm checking out, the app can give me a warning if I'm buying too much and possibly even prevent me from completing the transaction (like declining a credit card) if I'm taking on too much debt.  

Ideally this logic would be more than just "do I have enough money in my account and credit on my card."  For example, if it's Thursday, the backend knows I get paid $X every Friday, and there are 3 Fridays until my card payment is due, then it should know that yes, I won't need to take on debt to buy this (or that if I do take on debt, I can pay it off easily).

To put this into human terms:

John is fresh out of college, and while he has a basic idea about finance (spend less than you make), his parents have often helped with his bills, and he figured he deserved that large TV as a graduation gift to himself even though he has to start paying back his student loans.  Fortunately he has a job at a daycare, helping with early development.  Unfortunately this job is pretty tiring, it doesn't pay amazingly well, and he spent his time in college thinking about early education, not finance.

He sees an ad for $Coach and downloads it, taking a few minutes to enter his bank account, credit cards, and student loans.  (Ideally he just points his phone's camera at a check and his cards to capture a lot of this information.)  $Coach thinks for a second, doing data analysis of his accounts.  It recognizes he has a new job, for example, and that his income in the future will vary.  $Coach then asks him a few questions, like if he has any specific goals he wants to start saving for now (like a vacation).  

$Coach then suggests a basic plan for him to continuously transfer his income to pay off debts and to save.  Like Wealthfront has automated many sophisticated parts of investing, $Coach could codify knowledge like "if the interest rate on your student loan is 4%, pay the minimum on it and invest the remaining money in a market fund.  If the interest rate is higher, pay it off sooner."  $Coach might also have various banks/investment funds/credit cards as partners and be able to suggest smarter choices for John to switch to (and make it push-button simple to do so).

Whenever John has a financial question, he could use $Coach.  For example, maybe he wants to buy a car.  $Coach could show him information on auto loans, help him get the best rate, and then tie that debt into his overall plan.

The more John uses $Coach, in addition to helping his overall financial well-being, he's rewarded with points and badges, and he sees himself rising in the $Coach leaderboard.  With barely any work other than consulting $Coach about anything financial, John's becoming more financially savvy, and others know it, too.

A great feature is $Coach's in-the-moment buying help.  When John's in a store, he points his phone's camera at a product's barcode, much like RedLaser and similar apps.  It pulls up the price in the store along with any coupons along with if item's cheaper elsewhere.  But, there's a new section at the top of the screen, displaying if John could/couldn't buy this right now.  And if John forgets to do this in the moment, when goes to checkout and pay with his phone, again like how credit cards can be declined, $Coach can intervene and decline the transaction. (Or perhaps $Coach is dynamically adjusting the purchase limit on John's card so that the card actually does get declined.)

But, if John can't buy something, $Coach prompts him to add it to his saving plan, so that when John has the money, $Coach lets him know he could buy the item.  $Coach could even continue to track the item's price, looking for any sales, so that between John's savings and the price dropping, he might be able to afford it sooner than expected.

Over time, $Coach continually and automatically does the best financial practices for John, and without thinking about it, John is setting himself up for success throughout life.

Stay tuned for $Coach 2.0, which will help John deal with major life events, like getting married and having kids.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Rebecca Hurlock

Great idea! I'd also like to see this applied further afield to the likes of governmental institutions and larger corporations. Akin to a war-torn Europe with resources scarce on the ground, people didn't spend more money than they had because they couldn't, and their country couldn't afford it. Flash forward 70 years and a culture of "debt" has enveloped modern societies.

While somewhat an obscure reference, this idea embeds a different cultural norm whereby the individual is led to feel more responsible for the money he or she spends and can see where that money goes rather than knowing their account is somewhere in the plus or minus for the month. I agree with some of the other commenters, there would have to be a clear line of credit and debit (especially with online transacting as certain sights charge you for credit cards and others mandate it's credit card only). Likewise, the individual should have a clear understanding of what their costs of living would be relative to their expenditure. This would offer a dual benefit, by helping the individual create a secure credit score and monitor their spending habits.

Brilliant stuff, it would be interesting to see this primarily developed for a small control user community and then standardised for wider consumption.

Photo of Josh Anon

Semi-related, I just read this NYT piece about an app called Even whose goal is to even out income for people with widely variable income. Something like that would tie really well into the broader financial coach platform I described here.

Photo of BT

Josh I really like the idea and have a thought or two about how to integrate it into a community. But I wanted to address a different point first, this is really about changing individual behavior, this whole challenge is, and that's hard to do. But not impossible.

We have to intertwine the habits and message into everyday life and everyday needs. But if it embarrassing someone in line at the grocer because they were just declined for a purchase they won't use it twice.

I'm planning on posting our idea by tomorrow, tell me what you think afterwards.

Photo of An Old Friend

Love this idea. People are always trying to live outside of their means. We all need to take a humble approach.

Photo of Nicole Stempak

I like your idea about a device being able to discern the difference between a splurge and a necessity. Teaching it how to do that sounds like it could be time consuming and require a lot of front-end work. I’m not sure I could commit. I could see scanning bar codes as you put them in the cart, but that’s too much metadata considering how frequently store prices change.

I also think itemized purchase tracking may be too extreme because most purchases aren’t bought on a weekly basis like milk. And I think you have to think through the bigger picture: I buy dried fruit and nuts in bulk, which can ring up around $10 because it’s cheaper than buying two smaller bags. I justify my purchase by saying it’s a healthier snack than chips — and they can be used in other dishes like oatmeal.

It might help to build in a shopping list to help you stick to it. I’m not one of those people, and I tend to ignore signs when I’m in the process of making a transaction. I’m focused on getting in and out, so when I have to choose between credit and debit, I get flustered.

I think tying spending back to goals could help me stick to my grocery shopping budget for whatever I want. It would also help me see where the money comes from if I go over budget.

I’ll take a look at your idea now. Thanks!

BTW, great pop culture reference.

Photo of André Fernandes

Hi Josh, it's interesting you make your idea more visual, so people can get to know easily how it works. I send 2 ideas that can inspire you, maybe you can combine them to another idea.

Text Alerts for Saving Money:

Chameleon Card:

Photo of Josh Anon

This definitely could be combined with something like Chameleon card so that the virtual color of your card on-screen changes when you go to pay, depending on the current state of your finances.

The text alert could be something more subtle. Rather than pinging you periodically to say "save your pennies," it could detect when you're in a store and give a motivational notification ("you're really close to your savings goal!") to encourage you to think about what you're spending.

Photo of Shane Zhao

Nice cross-pollination Andre! Josh, in addition to adding more visual goodness to your idea, perhaps you might consider creating some user scenarios of the proposed activities you've outlined. This will help us better understand how this idea will play out in real life. Check out this example: where a few simple scenarios were created in an attempt to explain the goodness on the idea in a human-centered way. (You can update your entry at any time by hitting the Edit Contribution button at the top of your post.)

Photo of Maddie Wiener

Hey Josh - really cool idea. I like that the app is in your phone which is always with you, and so hopefully will keep you on track.

You should also check out Mansi's idea where you can pre-program a card to have a set amount of money available for spending on a certain category of things (food, clothing, rent, etc) in order to limit spending. I wonder if there's a way to collaborate and making it an advice-giving app that's also somehow connected to card?

Photo of Josh Anon

Good reference. I've seen things like that to limit teens' credit, but I don't think I've seen it targeted towards specific categories.

As I've been thinking/evolving this idea, I actually think it's more about having an automated smart financial coach with you all the time, and before you click "buy" is a very important piece of when you want a coach. The full scope would definitely be further off and a lot of effort to implement (heck automated investing--Wealthfront--is an entire company by itself, and this is arguably a bigger project) but empowering if pulled off. Of course that makes incremental steps, like Mansi's idea, even more important.

Photo of Nicole Stempak

There are plenty of apps like Mint that help track your spending. I know of two banks that have tools to manage your money.
1. PNC has virtual wallet (
2. YOVA has orange money (

I think the question you have to ask is “How do you distinguish between making and not making a purchase?” It’s one thing to outright spend too much like on dining and shopping on vacation. What happens when you mix splurges with necessities or splurge on necessities? I’ll usually get one or two extras while grocery shopping like a jar of Nutella or a few more boxes of tea, things I want but don’t necessarily need. Or shop for those things at a farmers market or organic food store, where items cost more than a regular grocery store. These aren’t extravagant purchases, but they definitely add up. How could you stop me from doing that?

As far as community, whatever you choose could become the community. I’m thinking of a friend who uses fitness apps to record her gym activity. I’m not sure if they are local to her, but it could be something as simple as a scoreboard for how much someone saved that day. Whether they decided or they were denied their purchase, it’s still a saving. Like the gym app, if you find a community of people, you’ll be motivated. My idea is to use social networks, so maybe it’s an app that lets you post your activity to Facebook with an established network of people.

You mentioned a tie in to a coupon hunting site. My caution to you is that deal buster savings can encourage impulse behavior. Perhaps a better next step would be a site that lets you sell or trade your old stuff (i.e., an eBay or one of the crop of high end sites like Portero, Vaunte or LuxuryExchange).