Is 'Sou-Sou' for You? Africa's Savings Pool Scheme Lands in America

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office poolHave you ever daydreamed about winning the lottery? Imagined the joy of receiving a windfall deposit of millions (or even just thousands) of dollars in your bank account?

Well, a new scheme has been making the rounds lately that promises to do just that: It's an idea that can guarantee you win the "lottery" -- and not just once, but over and over again.

The idea's called a "sou-sou," and while it may be unfamiliar here, the concept's actually pretty old hat in some countries of West Africa. It works like this:

Say John wants to buy himself a $2,000 LCD television set. John makes a good salary, and he's got a credit card. He should be able to afford such a set easily. But here's his problem: John's credit card is maxed out, and as for his income, he finds that he spends his money as fast as he earns it. There's enough to cover the minimum monthly payment on his card, pay the rent, and pay for everything else he needs. But every month, it seems that no sooner does he cash a paycheck than it's spent -- frittered away on he-can't-remember-just-what.

He can't seem to catch up, nor can he save up the cash to pay for his dream TV.

So what does he do? John rounds up 19 friends from the office, and they huddle together and make a pact. Each member of this group, this "sou-sous," will contribute $100 every week to a sort of community pot. Every week, one new person from the group will be chosen by lottery to empty the pot into his or her bank account, until at the end of 20 weeks, everyone has "won the lottery."

Once everyone has won once, the order of lottery winnership has been established, and the process keeps on rolling.

Each week, everyone contributes $100. Each week, somebody's a winner. And everybody knows that in 20 weeks, their turn will come around again and they'll collect $2,000 -- to spend on a TV, make a down payment on a car, extinguish that nagging credit card debt, or what have you. The money is John's or Mary's or Jasper's, to do with as they will. (And as a bonus, none of these "lottery" winners have to give the IRS a cut of their winnings.)

Is Sou-Sou For You?

Ad hoc sou-sous have been operating in the U.S. for decades. Last month, the concept went mainstream when Cameroon native Bill Gwanyalla set up www.sou-sous.com as a way of facilitating the formation of of such groups.

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As Gwanyalla explains: "We are now the sharing generation: people share their houses on airbnb, their couch on couchsurfing.org, their lives on [F]acebook, and their cars on GetAround.com." It's only logical, then, that people might be interested in an idea that helps you "share money with people you care about to fight the hard times."

Whether you think of sou-sous as a kind of can't-lose lottery or an enforced savings program, the concept does have its fans. But there are downsides to the idea.
  • Sou-sous have no formal contract, so there's no legal way to prevent a sou-sou member who has already "won the lottery" -- as early as week two -- from taking the money and running, rather than continuing to contribute to the pot.
  • You're almost certain to lose some money when joining a sou-sou. With the whole pot getting paid out every week, sou-sou funds never get a chance to earn interest.
  • Every sou-sou needs an organizer, someone who keeps track of who's paid and who hasn't, who's owed and how much. All that administrative work takes time, and the organizer is presumably going to want to get paid for the work. Some sou-sous, therefore, might have 21 members (for example). Each would still pay $100 weekly, but the payout would remain $2000 and the organizer would keep the extra $100 as compensation for the hassle of running the thing.
  • Knowing $2,000 is coming your way is one thing, but depending on the size of your sou-sou, there's no way of knowing for sure when you will win the lottery the first time. You get the cash when you get it, not necessarily when you need it. Meanwhile, you're on the hook for your $100 every week -- even in weeks when you may need that $100.
So before you place your bets – and commit your money – to a sou-sous, fully consider the downsides to the idea. If you have the discipline to sock away $100 a week on your own, why not have the discipline to wait until you've saved enough to pay for that new LCD TV with your own money?
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