Innovation Is the Key to Promoting Financial Capability

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Today is the last day of National Financial Capability Month. Once known as Financial Literacy Month, President Barack Obama renamed the April observance during his first term because of a growing recognition that literacy alone won't close the know-do gap.

Consumers know they should put aside savings for a rainy day. They know they should pay their bills on time. But research shows that knowing how to do these things doesn't necessarily translate into actually doing them. 

Consumers need financial information and advice that is linked to financial products and services. They need the opportunity to practice what they learn, to experience it, in order to improve their chances of having a positive financial future.

Our organization has been promoting the concept of financial capability by seeding and testing grass-roots innovations designed to shrink the know-do gap. Last week, with the support of a collaborative group of financial services industry leaders, CFSI launched a new wave of innovation.

We awarded $2.5 million to eight leading nonprofits that are testing new financial capability approaches by leveraging technology and social networks to facilitate behavior change and combining information and advice with access to high-quality financial products and services.

The pilots target a broad range of markets, products and behaviors. What they have in common are the four elements we consistently find in those financial capability interventions that are most effective: They strive to be relevant, timely, actionable and ongoing.

Relevant interventions provide products and advice that address an immediate and specific consumer concern, making it more likely that consumers will take action. Through its network of California credit union branches, the Center for Community Self-Help will test several product structures for meeting the small-dollar credit needs of consumers in ways that simultaneously fill an immediate need and set people up for future success.  For instance, one product will feature default settings that encourage borrowers to pay down their balance at an accelerated rate.

The National League of Cities Institute will focus on another relevant pain point, past-due utility bills.  The Institute will partner with five publicly-owned utility companies to help past-due accountholders establish repayment plans. Each partner city will experiment with a variety of incentives to encourage repayment, including partial debt forgiveness and savings account deposits.

Timely programs coincide with key life events or moments of decision, providing immediate feedback that helps people understand the consequences of their behavior. Two Bay Area organizations will leverage moments when consumers find themselves with new sources of income to encourage saving and credit building.

Mission Economic Development Agency will leverage the tax preparation moment. Through its free tax preparation program, MEDA will offer low-income Latino immigrants the opportunity to use a portion of their refunds to make the required deposit for a secured credit card. Cardholders will receive text notifications to help them track their credit utilization rate.

Mission SF Community Financial Center will connect with teens that have publicly-funded summer jobs and encourage them to save some of what they earn. Through a variety of treatment and control groups, the organization will test the relative importance of different kinds of savings incentives and financial education delivery mechanisms to identify the most cost-effective methods.

Actionable initiatives enable people to put newly gained knowledge into practice right away. Neighborhood Trust Financial Partners, based in New York City, will build on an existing financial coaching service provided through the workplace by adding tools that enable workers to align their goals with their actions. 

Neighborhood Trust will work with employees to identify financial goals such as building savings or paying down debt. On payday, a portion of the employee's paycheck will be automatically allocated to separate accounts that align with the pre-identified goals.  Paystubs will be designed to show progress against the goals.

Doorways to Dreams Fund, or D2D, will test techniques to turn the act of saving into a game. D2D will add a game-like experience to the "Rainy Day Reserve" savings account featured on the prepaid debit card of its partner, Plastyc. Participating cardholders will earn rewards through a points-based system by acting on opportunities to save.

Ongoing programs develop long-term relationships that offer continuous support as consumers work to change their behavior. Juma Ventures and Moneythink are nonprofits that work with high school students over multiple years to encourage them to build a savings habit. Both organizations will be developing more robust technology platforms and mobile applications to increase student engagement and make it cool to save.

Our aim in making these investments is to promote more experimentation in the market – not just among nonprofits, and not just once a year during Financial Capability Month. Financial services providers have a critical role to play in closing the know-do gap by linking their products and services with information and tools that are relevant, timely, actionable and ongoing.

Jennifer Tescher is the president and CEO of the Center for Financial Services Innovation. Joshua Sledge is CFSI's manager of nonprofit investments.

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