Translating aspirations into action

Improving Financial Health with Goal-Setting Tactics


  • Many Americans don’t have adequate savings and credit to meet their needs
  • Financial capability programs often improve financial knowledge, but don’t set clients up use it
  • We applied behavioral tactics to a program to support clients in translating aspirations into action

The Challenge

Many Americans suffer from having inadequate savings and credit to meet their needs. A 2018 study by the Federal Reserve found that 40% of Americans would struggle to come up with $400 in savings if faced with a financial emergency. In addition, three out of 10 Americans are unlikely to qualify for a mortgage based on their credit score, yet strong credit scores are a prerequisite for many aspects of life in the U.S.—buying or renting a home, getting a small business loan, buying or leasing a car, accessing affordable sources of credit for short term needs.

To reduce barriers like these, Capital One established a set of partnerships with non-profit organizations around the country to deliver financial capability instruction in the areas of credit, homeownership, small business, savings/budgeting and financial digital literacy. Clients reported that they found the savings/budgeting and credit sessions useful, felt they had learned new facts about financial management, and intended to use that new information in their lives. However, we also heard from clients that they weren’t necessarily acting on that new information after the sessions as they had hoped—the same barrier that most financial education programs face.

Our Approach

We partnered with Capital One to examine this financial capability program and investigate how behavioral science best practices could bolster the positive impact of the program within communities. First, we identified three key behavioral barriers preventing clients from following through on their intentions:

  • The learning material was dense, causing clients to experience information overload
  • Clients set general goals based on the broad advice in the sessions but struggled to identify specific next steps to move forward on their goals
  • It was challenging to take action on learnings after the session as real life resumed and new hurdles appeared

Then we engaged with a team of Capital One associates to co-design new behavioral elements for the program and set clients up to be able to take action on goals of their own choosing. We employed several well-documented behavioral tactics known to facilitate follow-through:

  • Prioritize Relevant Content: To make the most of the session, we significantly simplified and reduced the content, focusing on the information that was most relevant for clients and reserving time for them to engage in group discussion.
  • Goal-Setting: The session included prompts for choosing single, specific goals like “I want to buy a house,” rather than a vague intention such as, “I want to improve my credit score.” Clients left the session with a checklist of sub-steps toward their goal, with the first few steps already completed to instill endowed progress.
  • Planning Prompts: To move from intention to action, clients broke down larger steps into more manageable and granular steps using planning prompts. Clients also engaged in mental contrasting to anticipate potential obstacles that might prevent them from achieving their goal and plan how to overcome them.
  • Reminders: To increase salience of the plans that clients made during the session, we created a moment where clients set reminders for when they would complete the next steps they identified.


Financial health programs are most effective when they are tailored to community needs and designed with the realities of human behavior in mind. Though this program was previously conducted in-person, Capital One has since modified the curriculum to be delivered safely virtually during the COVID-19 crisis. Virtual sessions have been increasingly well-attended during the pandemic, underscoring the demand for financial health supports—and the need for programs like these that affirm, engage, and equip clients to reach their financial goals.

Read more about the program design in the project brief.

Interested in learning more about our work applying behavioral science to financial health? Reach out to us at or tweet at @ideas42 to join the conversation.