Tax-Time Interventions to Increase Emergency Savings in Financially Volatile, Low-Income Households: Evidence from Refund to Savings
*Names in bold indicate Presenter
This paper opens with a deep look at the LMI sample’s experience of income and expense volatility. Preliminary analysis reveals that only 43% of survey respondents report that both their income and expenses remain “roughly the same each month.” This finding is somewhat unsurprising because negative income shocks were prevalent: 15% report that someone in the household experienced job loss within the previous 6 months, and 23% report any loss of income over that period. Unexpected expenses are also reported in high numbers, with 15% reporting the need to make substantial home repairs and 32% needing to make substantial car repairs. Over 17% of households report large, unplanned medical expenses.
Preliminary analysis also reveals that financial volatility may represent a barrier to tax-refund saving. Participants who report income or expense volatility are significantly less likely to report an intention to save part of their refund, and those planning to save were expecting to save less on average than financially stable households. Financial volatility is also significantly associated with the experience of material and financial hardships, such as missing rent or bill payments, skipping needed medical care, and overdrawing a bank account.
The paper connects survey data on financial volatility with data from the R2S experiment, which is embedded in the TurboTax software. At the conclusion of the 2015 tax filing season, the research team will test the hypothesis that behaviorally informed saving interventions, specifically the presentation of savings defaults and saving-related priming messages, lead to an increase in the likelihood that refunds will be placed in savings vehicles and that those savings are maintained over the 6 months following refund receipt.
This work provides a rich look at the often turbulent financial lives of LMI households. It tests the use of low-cost, scalable interventions that occur around the tax-filing moment and are designed to increase saving behavior in the face of income and expense volatility; such interventions may offer the possibility of lessening the negative effects of such volatility.