How to Save: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
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In many ways, we are all like Dorothy making our way down the infamous “yellow brick road” to the Emerald City to see the wonderful Wizard of Oz. The Emerald City is built on a vision of fantasy. All its inhabitants wear emerald, rather rose-colored glasses, forcing them to see only with positive intentions. This fact is referenced in Elton John’s song “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” which is about discovering that the Emerald City is just a fantasy, and that his life is now “beyond the yellow brick road.” Unfortunately, many Americans still wear these colored glasses because they do not understand the importance of saving. As a recent CNBC article reported, 65% of Americans “save little or nothing.” On a more macroeconomic scale, even the United States does not save enough. As a result, our deficit nearly doubled to $214 billion in August 2018 from $107.7 billion in August 2017, according to a Wall Street Journal article. Saving is an important indicator of economic progress - it drives investments forward, which then contributes to productivity.
The personal savings rate is defined as the percentage of disposable personal income, meaning the amount of money one has to spend and save after income taxes. Additionally, it is a useful method to capture consumer saving behavior. Moreover, it is currently declining - the personal savings rate has fallen over time even with the gradual slight increase that started around 2003, according to the 2018 Census.
To help increase the personal savings rate, I have designed a personal finance app called “BLOB.” The data used to create BLOB came from the US Census (income and shelter for US states) and Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) (food, transportation, public transportation, gas, healthcare, insurance, education, entertainment, personal care, apparel, and alcohol by region) websites. BLOB operates like the friends Dorothy encounters on the yellow brick road, namely the Scarecrow who is known for his intelligence, the Tin man who is known for his compassion, and the Lion who is known for his bravery. They are the ones who help Dorothy realize the Emerald City is just a fantasy and she had all the necessary tools to succeed already.
The first character Dorothy meets is the Scarecrow who, despite wishing for a brain, is actually intelligent and always offers strategies to help Dorothy. Dorothy tells the Scarecrow she needs to find the Emerald City but is not sure how to get there. The Scarecrow happens to know a few facts about the place and some of the obstacles they would have to overcome in order to get there. This is what we have here - a page of “quick facts” about different regions and states.
Perhaps the user is considering moving to another state, and so it helps to have some research on comparing costs of living between the origin and new state. Thus, in the “Quick Facts” page, anticipating the user is interested in comparing their origin state against other states, BLOB provides a variety of basic statistics. Another feature on this page is the “Data” tab in which the user can directly look at the data used to build BLOB, which can be useful to examine other cost of living metrics, such as public transportation, entertainment, and personal costs.
Moving forward, the user might prefer to use an automated calculator to compare living standards, which is the first interactive feature BLOB offers. The user selects the states moving from and moving to. BLOB then helps the user decide by telling them how much more expensive or cheaper moving to the given state would be relative to the user’s income. The idea behind this feature is to provide some basis of comparison to users who like a quick answer and to those who tend to become overwhelmed by statistics and multiple numeric visualizations.
The second calculator function is “My BLOB” which is a customized budget and financial planner feature. Users can input their income and pick the month, either current, or some other month, and BLOB will output the recommended maximum expenditure the user should spend per day, per week, and per every two weeks.
Furthermore, the user can input his or her expenses (both fixed and leisure) and BLOB will render two graphs providing an overview of the user’s expenditure. Additionally, the user can opt to input his or her expected expenditure, which is particularly useful for fixed costs that don’t usually change. This way, the two graphs can show a prediction of how much money the user would spend given the fixed costs. Another advantage of this feature is that it can make users become aware of their spending habits and the potential associated consequences if they continue their behavior. Most people know or can tell in some capacity whether their spending habits are reasonable or not only after the fact -- either by the numbers in their bank account or “buyer’s remorse.” My BLOB aims to help people take off their Emerald City glasses to see the potential effects of their current spending habits. While My BLOB cannot change a user’s behavior, it can incentivize them to at least think about his or her spending behavior and consider the benefit of saving. In doing so, users are one step closer to leaving their Emerald City via the yellow brick road and to start taking control of their finances. Unfortunately, talking about money is frowned upon since it typically carries a competitive implication and often provokes a vulnerable feeling. That being said, the right support system can serve as someone’s extra boost of “courage,” which can help them have that hard conversation just like how the Lion encourages Dorothy to keep going on her journey.
Another feature of BLOB is the “Resource” page which serves as an extra “friend-support” because the page contains ten websites and blogs dedicated to personal saving and investing techniques.
BLOB recognizes there will be some users who are further down the yellow brick road than others. There are those who are more financially stable who are interested in tips for increasing savings and investment. Finally, as an “extra support,” there is a “Contact Us” page for users to provide feedback or ask any questions they might have. Thus, regardless of the user’s financial stability, BLOB strives to give users lots of support for their unique journeys, just how the Tin Man served as Dorothy’s compassionate and supportive companion on her journey.
While BLOB provides a great starting point for a personal finance app, there are always improvements to be made and future enhancements to make. The first improvement and enhancement would a secure linkage to mainstream banks; this would help automate some of the user’s expenditure inputs. The second enhancement would be partnerships with other finance apps such as Acorn (a micro-investing app) or other investment companies to provide users with alternate sources of income. The third improvement would be an algorithm identifying companies which users could consider cutting such as subscriptions. Finally, an obvious improvement would be the data used for BLOB because unfortunately, there is data more detailed and more frequently update than the Census and BLS.
Media and ads tell us we need various products and services, and so we swipe our credit cards, not worrying about the expense since we have low interest rates and a high credit limit – this environment is called “The Emerald City,” a utopian place on the yellow brick road where people are not concerned about saving and spend freely. Compared to the rest of the world, the United States is one of the wealthiest countries and yet the majority of the population are reported to be at risk for having a comfortable retirement. Unfortunately, in the United States, talking about money is viewed as a taboo topic, so many adolescents are not taught the importance and value of money – this does nothing to help them leave their utopian Emerald City. To help this situation, I created BLOB, a personal finance app, to serve as user’s support system to help users take off their rose-colored glasses and understand the importance of saving. BLOB offers various features such as “quick facts,” cost of living calculator, a financial planner, and additional resources. With BLOB, I hope many will see the value in saving and thus, remove their rose-colored glasses and leave their Emerald City singing Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”