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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.

Then there's the link between saving and prizes. SaveUp was in­spired, in part, by lottery-linked savings accounts that reward deposits with raffle tickets. The concept is popular in Britain but illegal in all but a few US states.

"What concerns me is the notion of nudging people, linking savings with gambling behavior," says Victor Ricciardi, a finance professor at Goucher College in Baltimore.

The gaming aspect can muddle motivation and, perversely, encourage risky behavior, agrees Ms. Torabi. "Part of me is a little cautious, especially with free prizes. People get too caught up on the freebie and forget about the journey."

Still, Mr. Ricciardi and Torabi say there is a value in the engagement these methods can drive, particularly with a younger generation raised on computers.

"I'm not sure it's the end-all for financial literacy education," says Torabi. "People who are really struggling with their money, living from paycheck to paycheck ... don't need games. These people need professional help. But if you aren't saving as much as you like, play around. Maybe it will help."

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