I have been working with Community Action for just four short months. I was hired to lead a team of specialized volunteers to incorporate financial literacy and savings tools within our free tax preparation service. We are over halfway through the tax season now and if there is one thing I have learned, it is that people AREN’T poor because they don’t know how to manage their money. In fact, quite often, low to moderate income families are excellent at managing what would seem to be an impossible balance between income and expense but even the best budget leaves little to no room for savings.
Society’s understanding of the value of money is that we need it, we get it, and we spend it. But where we often fall short is taking the next step of saving it. This observation doesn’t surprise me – we are a culture built on credit. “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” (Wimpy from Popeye, remember?) How do we justify paying ourselves first while our expenses and debt continue to mount? It would be foolish to think that the majority of our family’s expenses could be avoided when overwhelmingly it is medical debt that has threatened their financial stability. (I’ll leave my healthcare rant for another day.) Here defines the challenge of my job and of my mission; is saving possible even amongst such strong financial adversity?
We, on a whole, haven’t been raised to save, we have been raised to spend and in order to start preparing for the future a total mind shift must take place. As I stated before, many of our low to moderate income families don’t frivolously overspend therefore there isn’t this disposable income that could be allocated to savings. So, where will this money come from and where would they begin? This is where the relationship between taxes and my program starts to unfold.
There is a belief that there is no better opportunity to save than when receiving a windfall of money in the form of your tax return. I can see why this would work in theory, but one important component is still missing from the equation – we don’t save! Quite often upon presenting what could arguably be viewed as a solid savings approach, we are faced with a myriad of other places where this money has been assigned. It has been spent or justifiably will be. How can I argue saving for the future while everyone has their hands full spending today? THAT is the challenge, right? I have come to realize that my job isn’t to offer the right savings tool, my job is to force a paradigm shift from get and spend to get and save.
So, there you have it. I have what is left of the tax season to revolutionize society’s relationship with money. Any ideas?