Warm Customer Engagement for Digital Financial Services

Perception and Behavior: A Cross-Cultural Look at Savings

April 28, 2016

Posted by Christina Huntzinger

Written by Veronica Pugin, Latin America Relationship Manager


Exploring Perceptions Around Savings

Financial institutions assume that when we think about “savings,” we all have the following perception: savings =

  • money deposited and not frequently withdrawn from a bank account with interest

As we have communicated with thousands of users around the world, we have noticed that this traditional banking perception is often times not shared among low-income users. The more commonplace perceptions that we uncovered are that savings =

  • unspent cash
  • non-monetary items
  • credit
  • group-pooled cash

These perceptions vary across countries and regions, with some more prevalent in certain communities than others, but ultimately they all differ from financial institutions’ assumed perception. It is also key to note that in certain communities of low-income users, especially in rural areas, one does not come across money as often as in urban centers on a day-to-day basis; therefore, one’s vision of savings is often times non-monetary. Ultimately, users have different perceptions tied to the word “savings.”




After a perception is formed, it drives behavior, consciously or unconsciously. Below are some of the savings behaviors that we have noticed manifest themselves as a result of the above savings perceptions of low-income users.


Exploring Behavior Around Savings

Saving in the Form of Unspent Cash

  • Users’ Perception: In many communities, we noticed users view savings as cash that is “not spent and put away.”
  • Users’ Behavior:
    • Colombia: In our research, we noticed individuals would save bills and coins in tin boxes. Individuals who previously did not practice consistent savings habits would often times deposit into a tin box as a first step towards savings, instead of depositing into a bank savings account.
    • Philippines: We encountered examples of individuals saving bills and coins in a jar in their house. Individuals felt that their quantity of savings was not enough for a bank saving account, so the savings jar was their source for cash savings.
    • Rwanda: It is common for women in particular to save cash in their house. For women in these communities, it is often times rare and difficult for them to come by cash. When they do acquire it, they are sure to save it.

Savings in the Form of Non-Monetary Items

  • Users’ Perception: In various communities, we have learned that saving can mean non-monetary items that store value or are an input towards a long-term goal.
  • Users’ Behavior:
    • Mexico: Certain individuals and families will collect non-monetary items that directly translate to their long-term goal without the need for cash. For example, the most common long-term goal was saving for a house. Users would save for their house by collecting concrete and bricks that would then be used to build the house rather than depositing money into a bank account.
    • Philippines: In our research, we learned that individuals use non-monetary items to store value. A common practice is to use jewelry, especially gold, as a way to “save value” rather than using a bank account.
    • Tanzania: Individuals will save non-monetary items that they would be able to sell later during a time of need for cash. The non-monetary items are seen as value-storing items that can provide cash when needed, much like having cash in a bank savings account.

Saving in the Form of Credit

  • Users’ Perception: At times, users view credit as a form of savings because it can be used for a future goal and/or income-smoothing purposes. One also needs to have earned a “trustworthy reputation” in their community to gain this credit, much like a credit score.
  • Users’ Behavior:
    • Paraguay: We learned that informal credit can be used for long-term goals and also daily expenses. For example, one could get a small loan to purchase lunch. Users work towards building a trustworthy reputation to allow them to get loans from others. This trustworthy reputation is an asset of sorts that allows them to confront income shocks and pursue financial goals.
    • Mexico: In our experience, we learned that net borrowing behavior is common as a way to manage short and long-term financial demands. Similarly, a trustworthy reputation is an asset that individuals protect to access credit.
    • Tanzania: Although declining in popularity, there are semi-formal savings and credit associations that offer participants savings account and loan swap options, and the loan options are viewed in parallel to savings as a form of “saving down.”


Savings in the Form of Group-pooled Cash

  • Users’ Perception: Across the globe, low-income users often times participate in groups that pool together funds as a form of savings. They organize a group of individuals to each contribute funds to pool together money and rotate being the beneficiary.
  • Users’ Behavior:
    • Indonesia: Indonesian culture values achievement through community, including savings. Savings circles are not just a functional activity to pool funds but are also a social activity in which individuals look forward to meeting together to socialize around the savings. Users also feel that they will be able to pool funds from their community when in need because of the trust they have build with their community members.
    • Mexico: It is extremely common for individuals to participate in tandas savings vehicles in which a leader collects a fixed sum from all participants on a weekly or monthly basis and then rotates distributions of the total collected funds to a given participant until all participants have obtained large lump-sums.
    • Rwanda: A more secure way for women to save cash is by participating in chamas. A chama is a group of ten to fifteen housewives that are friends within a community. They contribute a certain amount of money to the chama and then agree to give certain sums to benefit a given participant in a given month. One at a time, each month one member is a beneficiary, and each beneficiary is then responsible for paying the sum back to the chama.



These are just some of the examples we have encountered that demonstrate a difference between financial institutions’ assumed perception and low-income users’ real perceptions regarding savings. At Juntos, we use this understanding of perceptions to design our two-way text message financial conversations for our users. Understanding individuals’ perceptions is the first step to understanding people and their behavior, which is foundational to any effort in driving a positive change with any individual or group.

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