2011-06-13

Co.Exist

How A Simple Text Message System Is Helping Latino Immigrants Save Serious Cash

Juntos Finanzas, a budget-by-text program started at Stanford with a group of janitorial workers, is part Mint.com, part Weight Watchers. Now it’s making real changes in the lives of lower-income workers.

Saving money is hard for most people. But when you’re making a pittance to begin with, it’s easy to believe that there’s nothing to put away in the first place.

It's the situation a group of first-generation immigrants working as janitors at Stanford University found themselves in. So they joined forces with graduate students as part of a class at the d.school and came up with a budget-by-text system that is helping people in their same financial bracket tuck away thousands of dollars a year.

Juntos Finanzas, a new service geared specifically toward first-generation Latino immigrants, works a little like Mint, a little like Weight Watchers. Users log all their expenses by text message (since they tend not to have computers), and at the end of the month, Juntos sends them a paper chart, by mail, showing where all their money went.

That simple act, Juntos cofounder Ben Knelman tells Fast Company, has had a profound effect. In a six-month test, participants, who earn less than $40,000 a year, managed to save an average of $1,400.

“We’re not really doing anything that they couldn’t be doing on their own,” Knelman says. “But when we give the information back, it’s coming from a third party. It looks professional. That information feels more real. It makes you think, ‘This is something I need to be thinking about.’” (The importance of outside influence in making changes was documented in Fast Company writer Alan Deutschman's landmark article "Change or Die.")

During the test, one of the participants discovered he was spending over $200 a week on his child’s cellphone bills. He switched to a different plan, which inspired him to re-examine his cable and car insurance plans as well.

“We’ve flipped their thinking from ‘My money is gone because I don’t have enough’ to ‘I have space to make choices,’” Knelman says.

Juntos recently won first place in Stanford’s Social Entrepreneurship Challenge. The company, which was incubated by Stanford’s StartX accelerator, is putting the product into a beta test this summer. Eventually, it will become a business supported, Knelman says, either by advertising or by offering it as a white-label product to banks and credit unions.

Read also: Fast Company’s previous coverage of the Stanford d.school

[Image: Flickr user kenteegardin, courtesy of SeniorLiving.org]

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