Financial Access 101: Why Savings Groups Work

Our recent Financial Access 101 video provided an introduction to savings groups - a common tool used around the world to help poor families build savings and better manage their financial lives.  In our latest installment in this series, we explore why savings groups work.  The underlying mechanisms of these groups (public commitment, social norming, salience, limited access, and mental accounting) work together to create an effective way of helping poor households increase their savings . . . 

Read More  

NYT: In Lending Circles, a Roundabout Way to a Higher Credit Score

Earlier this week, The New York Times published a feature on new initiatives aimed at bringing informal savings groups into the formal financial sector:

While informal lending circles among families, acquaintances, co-workers and neighbors are familiar to hundreds of millions of people all over the globe, they are rarely recognized by mainstream financial institutions . . . 

Read More  

Financial Access 101: Intro to Savings Groups

Budgeting can be a daunting task for poor famlies - they must stretch low, often-volatile income to meet basic consumption needs, handle unforeseen expenses, and try to build savings. But banks and formal institutions often do not offer savings products to the poor because their small deposits and frequent transactions do not cover the cost of servicing accounts.  For rural populations, not having a nearby bank branch is another obstacle to formal savings.

Despite these obstacles, poor families DO save.  Savings groups are one tool that  poor access as a dependable mechanism for saving.  In the latest video from our Financial Access 101 series, we provide an introduction to savings groups, the basic models, and why they help poor families better manage their financial lives . . . 

Read More  

New USFD Household Profile Highlights Yearly Budgeting with Seasonal Income

Many of the households included in the U.S. Financial Diaries project operated on a weekly or monthly budget, balancing income and expenses in relatively short-term periods.  However, the subject of the latest household profile, provides an example of long-term, annual budgeting.

Sandra Young lives in Brooklyn with her grown children Tyler and Kayla. She manages several branches of a tax preparation agency, which means that she earns most of her income during the six months between November and April. Sandra has chosen an unusual structure for her financial life, and the seasonal nature of her income means that she has to budget over a longer time period than many households . . . 

Read More  

New From USFD: Profile of A Single Mom's Financial Balancing Act

The U.S. Financial Diaries project, a joint initiative of NYU Wagner’s Financial Access Initiative (FAI) and The Center for Financial Services Innovation (CFSI), reveals hard-to-see aspects of the financial lives of working Americans, providing new insight for the design of financial services policies, programs and products for a broad range of Americans. 

Each of the project's Household Profiles presents the financial life of one family in the USFD study. While these families are not necessarily representative of the total sample, they illustrate recurring themes: households struggling with income volatility, unplanned expenses, and finding ways to save and invest, but also using creative–and sometimes counter intuitive–budget and money management strategies to help make ends meet. . . . 

Read More  

USFD Project Releases New Report on Informal Finance

People run their financial lives with a variety of tools. The first tools that come to mind are likely to be formal, like checking accounts and credit cards. But households often use informal tools that are harder to see from outside, like short-term loans from friends or relatives. Some people use informal financial services because they lack access—or believe they lack access—to quality products or because they do not trust formal options. It’s tempting to think that these informal tools are last resorts, or second-best solutions, but informal financial mechanisms are often combined with formal tools, and sometimes are preferred . . . 

Read More  

FAI's Jonathan Morduch on "The Hidden Tragedy of the Poor"

Recently Upsides sat down with FAI’s Jonathan Morduch to discuss his views on the current state of microfinance and his current project – US Financial Diaries.  Morduch highlights that whether in the developing world or the US, the poor face many of the same financial struggles, which is why understanding money management strategies at the household level a crucial step to providing more effective financial services to the poor . . . 

Read More  

Studying Cash Flow Patterns to Design Better Loans in Myanmar

“If you build it, he will come.” Unfortunately, this line that worked so well in Field of Dreams is less effective in the world of social enterprise.  Simply producing and having the networks to distribute a product does not guarantee its success—to be successful, a product must address a customer need.

What better way to understand customers’ needs, wants, and limitations than to involve them in the design process? This customer-centric philosophy is also known as human-centered design (HCD).  I work with Proximity Designs, a social enterprise that sells locally manufactured solar lanterns and low-cost irrigation products to smallholder farmers in rural Myanmar.  Before we launched these products at scale, our team presented prototypes to farmers in the field. Farmers could see, hold, and operate the products and give us immediate feedback on size, color, weight, price, and wattage.

But when Proximity launched its microfinance services in 2010, we had to come up with a different approach . . . 

Read More  

Every Dollar In, Every Dollar Out

Think back on the past year in your financial life: the money you received from work, loans or gifts, the purchases large and small, the bank deposits and withdrawals. Now imagine keeping track of every one of those transactions - regardless of your income level, it would be a mind-boggling endeavor.

Yet that's exactly what the U.S. Financial Diaries project has done . . . 

Read More  

A Tale of Two Studies: Measuring Women’s Empowerment Then and Now

In what seems to me an unfortunate conflation, the literature on women’s empowerment frequently relies on the same characterization as pornography: “you have trouble defining it but you know it when you see it.” If “empowerment” is hard to define, it is even harder to measure. This is a problem for researchers trying to establish a clear causal relationship between microfinance interventions and better outcomes for women.

In theory, microcredit could empower women through a number of different channels. For example, giving loans to women could increase their bargaining power within the family, and afford them greater control over household resources and decisions. The peer monitoring component of group-lending could provide protection against abuse, and deter domestic violence. Empirically, however, the picture is quite mixed . . . 

Read More  

High Touch or Low Touch: How to Reach New Microinsurance Customers?

How can we extend financial products and services, like microinsurance, to low-income consumers at scale? In theory, “low touch” sales and services can reach large numbers of people at low cost.  But so far, attempts to enroll new customers without active sales efforts have largely failed. As a result, “high touch” sales and distribution channels are seen as necessary to convince low-income consumers to purchase financial products, especially unfamiliar and complex ones such as microinsurance.  But these high touch channels may incur costs that the small premium revenues struggle to cover. 

Is it too soon to dismiss low touch methods? Can a balance be struck that provides the information, support, and “touch” level that encourages clients to buy, while keeping distribution costs in check?

Read More  

Harvard’s New Entrepreneurial Finance Lab

There’s a new weapon in the fight to expand financial access.

he Entrepreneurial Finance Lab, founded by faculty and students from the Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School, is pioneering new personality-assessment based tools to expand credit access.  Survey-based measures of personality characteristics – such as ethics, character, intelligence, attitudes and beliefs – combined with measures of business skills turn out to be powerful predictors of loan repayment in real-world settings.  The Entrepreneurial Finance Lab creates alternative credit scores based on these characteristics to expand credit access in partnership with banks and microfinance institutions from around the world.

The approach originates from research in both psychology and business administration . . . 

Read More  

Meet the Bangladesh Project Team

I write this from Dhaka, where I am visiting for the second time to help get our mobile banking impact evaluation in motion.  I am not here alone, however, and I wanted to devote this post to introducing the truly outstanding Bangladeshi economists, research staff and organizations who are our partners in this research study.

First, we are uniquely privileged to be working with Dr. Hassan Zaman as a co-principal investigator on this study.  Dr. Zaman is the chief economist of Bangladesh’s central bank, although he will soon be returning to Washington, DC to take a director-level advisory position on South Asia at the World Bank.  He spent much of his career prior to Bangladesh Bank at the World Bank and earlier worked for BRAC.  He has generated a body of policy and academic work that reflects a diverse mix of interests in development, including on development and finance, and will lead the World Bank’s work on poverty reduction and human development in his new role . . . 

Read More  

A Hard Look at Soft Commitments

In an interview with FAI, economist Jenny Aker explained that effective commitment savings products are those that balance flexibility and restrictions:

“If you give someone a savings product and it completely ties their hand, they don’t want to use it.  They want to have a little bit of that tying of the hand so they can’t spend that money but they don’t want to be completely divorced from access to that money.”

Much of the research on commitments focuses on savings products, which makes sense: when trying to save money, some “tying of the hands” helps. Like dieting, setting money aside requires the willpower to deny yourself something you want in the present to meet a goal in the future.  To win the struggle for control between your present self and your future self, little commitment nudges can change behavior.  Where product design gets tricky is in determining how restrictive the commitment should be.  A study of savers in Kenya gives us one clue that it might not take much: when given the choice of letting neighbors hold the key to a savings lock box or holding the keys themselves, participants saved more when they chose the latter.  Simply having the physical barrier of the box was enough to nudge them to save . . . 

Read More  

A Word of Warning on Postal Banking

Not long ago on this blog, Julie Siwicki explored Senator Elizabeth Warren's controversial idea that post offices begin offering checking and savings accounts, small loans, and money transfers. Would underserved consumers would actually benefit from the plan? Would expanded financial services actually help the struggling post office turn a profit? With the proposal now before Congress, FAI's managing Director Tim Ogden spoke with Next City, a non-profit that covers leaders, policies and innovations in metropolitan regions, about what it would take for postal banking to  meet the needs of the unbanked . . . 

Read More  

In Mexico, Naïve Consumers Get Bad Loan Information

A recently released World Bank Policy Research Working Paper presents results of an audit study of Mexican banks, investigating whether bank employees hide the lowest cost options from potential customers in order to turn a higher profit.

Financial products can vary widely in cost while providing more or less the same services.  The dispersion in prices for products that offer essentially the same benefits – checking accounts, savings accounts, loans, and index funds – is thought to at least partly reflect a lack of information on the part of consumers.  Savvy and informed consumers would gravitate to the lowest cost option, and competition would then drive prices down to the same level for equivalent products.

A key potential source of information on financial product attributes and prices is bank employees.  Bank employees presumably know their products, but may strategically choose not to divulge information about lower cost options . . . 

Read More  

Bringing Financial Services to Illiterate Populations

Recent work from CGAP and Continuum Innovation in Pakistan calls extreme illiteracy a “hidden hurdle” to financial inclusion. When people are unable to read or understand digital transactions they are less likely to trust digital products, constraining a viable avenue for access to financial products. In many cases illiterate people have to rely on an agent to complete their transaction and many remain wary of such services. The scale of this challenge is immense: UNESCO estimates the worldwide illiterate population at almost 800 million.

Many researchers have proposed ways to make financial services, and digital financial services in particular, more accessible to illiterate people. One idea comes from Woldmariam et al., who propose a new user interface that allows mobile money users in Ethiopia to identify currency notes on screen . . . 

Read More  
Top of Blog