"It's like dieting," says Priya Haji, who co-founded SaveUp with gaming software developer Sammy Shreibati. "When [results] are incremental it's hard to stay motivated. [But] the small chance that something life-changing can happen at any time is very motivating."
SaveUp won't release its member numbers, but a ticker on the site boasts that users have saved more than $150 million so far, and paid down more than $130 million in debt.
The idea is to develop good behaviors through repetition and positive reinforcement – similar to how video games promote certain strategy and motor skills. It's an attempt to overcome a huge obstacle for the personal finance industry: getting people to keep coming back.
"Americans only look at their finances when they're worried about it, and not frequently outside of a reactive situation," Ms. Haji says.
Outside experts applaud the attempt to turn good practices into habits.
"One of the challenges of habits is developing consistent patterns so that you're doing it organically," says Farnoosh Torabi, host of the "Financially Fit" Web series on Yahoo! "Programs that are attached to your phone and have reminders built in promote regularity. That's definitely a plus."
Problems remain. Besides engagement, another challenge is appealing to a cross section of users. Older adults are reluctant to try the software. Low-income people, who might benefit the most, often don't have access to the basic financial structures key to tracking savings. "It's more of a middle- to upper-middle-class experience," Haji says.