Enter the maze

Can’t buy happiness

a group of people carrying shopping bags

When you’re trying to save money, sometimes it’s the little things that do you in. The impulse items, the oh-go-on-why-nots, the I’ll-just-pop-in-as-I’m-passing-by-anyways. Before you know it, the money you had has drained away bit by bit. Thankfully, researchers at the MIT Media Lab in the USA are working on a solution – a smart system that reminds you to save money when you go near one of your favourite shops.

Mark the spot

Many mobiles now come with some kind of location finding equipment on board, like GPS. That means that your phone always knows where in the world it is. The Merry Miser, made by Charlie DeTar and Chris Schmadt, is a program for your phone that knows what locations are also the biggest holes in your finances. It knows because the first step in setting up the application is to give it your transaction history, so it can match up the shops you spend the most money in with actual physical locations. Then, when you’re out and about, and it thinks you’re going to one of those places, the Merry Miser pops up on your phone to remind you money’s tight.

Choose the moment

One of the most crucial things Charlie and Chris had to get right is exactly when the Merry Miser pops up. Think about any time you might have had to get someone to change their mind – it’s important to choose the right moment. That’s why the program pops up when it detects you’re on your way into the shop. You’re more likely to think twice about whether you really need to buy something before you pick it out, not when you’re at the till, ready to pay for it.

Feel the boost

The designers also had to make sure the reminders looked right. Designers of similar applications had already found out that giving people messages that make them feel bad or guilty aren’t very likely to work. Users decide they don’t like the app itself and get rid of it. Positive messages are better. Except it’s tough to give positive messages about finance, when spending money is all about subtracting from a supply you already have. What Charlie and Chris did was to get people to come up with money saving goals, and work towards them. Even though spending money moves you further from your goal, whenever you get money, like when you get paid or receive some allowance, you get a big boost. The trick is in making those boosts last.

Sometimes we already know we shouldn’t do something, and we just need a little prod to remind us it would be better if we didn’t. When your phone can provide those little prods by knowing the places that get your wallet into trouble, maybe you really can be a merry miser.