Choosing the ‘Default Option’ Can Save You a Bundle


From countries like Austria to universities like Rutgers, more and more organizations are defaulting to the “default option.”

The “default option” is an arbitrary way to opt you into a decision — in an unobtrusive manner — that you probably make, but you don’t always make.

Austria made organ donation the default (forcing citizens to opt out if they wish to refrain), and now have 99 percent of the population set up to donate after their death. Rutgers University changed its schools’ default printer options to “print on front and back,” reducing paper consumption by 55 million sheets over the next four years.

Hey, That Was Easy

The printer default savings is easy enough to replicate at home. If your printer offers a “print on front and back” setting, make that the default to instantly cut down on your paper costs. Switch the default to print in “mono” and “draft mode,” you’ll simultaneously stretch the life of your printer ink.

Granted, you won’t cut your paper use by millions of sheets like Rutgers. But every little bit adds up.

According to EPA estimates, the average office worker prints 10,000 sheets of paper a year. If we assume the average family prints roughly half that, double-sided printing will stretch the life of a box of paper to two years. Experts estimate that printing in draft mode saves an average of 10 percent on the cost of a cartridge. Still assuming the average family prints 5,000 sheets of paper a year, this move will also save you roughly $29 a year on the cost of the most popular cartridge sold on

That might seem like pocket change, but using the same “default” logic elsewhere in your life can have a tremendous impact on your own finances.

The Windfall from Forced Retirement Savings

One change that is becoming increasingly popular is automatic enrollment in your employer’s 401(k) plan. For whatever reason, the majority of new hires fail to sign up for what is easily one of their most valuable employee benefits. This lack of participation ultimately leaves people grossly underfunded and ill-prepared for retirement.

But a growing number of companies (56 percent of all U.S. employers — up from just 14 percent in 2003) now automatically enroll new hires in their 401(k) plan. Even a relatively small payroll deduction, such as 3 percent of the new hire’s salary, could add up to tens of thousands by the time retirement rolls around.

If your company doesn’t offer a 401(k) plan, you could force yourself into a similar behavior by setting up an automatic deduction from your paychecks that gets deposited straight into an IRA account.

Biweekly Payments Equals Big Savings on Big Loans

A simple change in how frequently you make payments on your large loans (mortgages, car loans, etc.) can add up to serious savings over time. If, like many people, you get paid every two weeks, in most months, you’ll bring home two paychecks. But a couple of times a year, you’ll enjoy a month with three. You can look at that “bonus” check as a short-term windfall, or as a long-term opportunity.

Putting your loans on a biweekly payment plan simply means that you are synching up your loan payments with your paychecks. Instead of making your current single payment each month, you make a payment of half that amount every two weeks. That will result in you making 26 “half” payments — thus 13 full payments — in a year, reducing your debt by an extra month’s worth annually, often without any significant shift in your budget.

As an example, on a $100,000 mortgage with a fixed rate of 6.5 percent, you pay $127,544 in interest over the lifetime on the loan by making once-monthly payments. By making biweekly payments, you’ll only pay $97,215 in interest over the loan’s lifetime. That’s almost $30,000 — a nearly 25 percent savings on interest!

Look for Other Ways to Automate Your Money

As you start to put these behaviors into practice, you’ll start to discover other “defaults” of your own — whether it’s setting up automatic payments for utility bills so you never incur a late fee, or using various smartphone apps to ensure you get the best deal on big purchases.

  • Nationally, the average gas price hit a recent high of $3.74 per gallon, nearly $0.50 higher than it was on Jan. 1. According to website, that’s about a 14 percent increase since the start of the year.

    1. Gas Prices

  • The start of the new year also marked the end of the temporary 2 percentage point tax break on Social Security contributions. Once that part of President Obama’s stimulus package expired, your paychecks went back to being 2 percent smaller. For the average family, that adds up to about $1,000 a year.

    2. Higher Taxes

  • That same "average family," by the way, already earns only about $50,000 a year today. And according to CNN, that’s about $4,000 less than you were earning in 2000.

    3. Lower Wages

  • A disconcerting report from Sallie Mae last week showed that about one-third of Americans working toward retirement are having to raid their retirement savings to pay for their kids’ college educations.

    4. Heavy College Costs

  • According to a poll commissioned by (RATE) in February, only 55 percent of Americans have enough money tucked away in their savings accounts and "emergency funds" to cover the amounts owed on their credit cards.

    5. Less Cash

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  • That Bankrate poll also revealed that among women in particular, 51 percent actually owe on their credit cards than they have cash in the bank. Digging deeper into the data, Bankrate reported that while high earners are doing well, and generally flush, most people (59 percent) who earn less than $30,000 annually owe more on their cards than they have in savings. And these are the people least able to afford the high cost of credit card interest.

    6. More Debt

  • Speaking of earnings — and jobs — the same unemployment report that set Wall Street to cheering Friday can be looked at from a glass half empty perspective as well. The new, lower unemployment level of 7.7 percent is the best number we’ve seen since the Great Recession ended. However, The Wall Street Journal points out that 7.7 percent is very close to the worst unemployment ever got (7.8 percent) in the 1991 recession. Our best number in years is within a whisker of the worst they faced back then.

    7. Less Work

  • The overall workforce participation rate — the percentage of Americans currently earning wages at all — currently stands at just 63.5 percent. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that’s much worse than what we saw in the 1991 recession. It’s the lowest we’ve seen since the recession that hit during the Carter administration.

    8. Fewer People Working

  • Little wonder, then, that according to the Bankrate survey, people are increasingly concerned about "job security." Friday’s unemployment report may suggest that the jobs market is on the mend, but most people (59 percent) say they feel no more or less  confident in their employment situation today than they did a year ago. Among those polled whose opinions have changed, 23 percent said they feel "less secure today" than they did a year ago, versus 19 percent who feel more secure.

    That doesn’t exactly jibe with the story that things are getting better.

    9. So Who Is Feeling Better These Days?

  • It’s great news for folks who own stocks, no doubt, and according to the Journal , more than 90 percent of people earning $100,000 or more do. But what about the rest of us? Fewer than 46 percent of Americans earning less than $50,000 are invested in the stock market — and remember, "$50,000" is the average income in America today.

    So yes, It turns out for the average American, things may not be getting better at all.

    10. And What About the Soaring Stock Market?