Can pre-commitment increase savings deposits? Evidence from a tax-time field experiment

This experiment tested combinations of behavioral strategies to promote savings including (1) asking filers at the start of tax preparation to pre-commit to saving their refund, and (2) choice architecture manipulations that emphasized directly depositing their refund into savings accounts or savings bond purchases.

Material hardship among lower-income households: the role of liquid assets and place

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) provides substantial financial support to low-income workers, yet around a quarter of EITC payments are estimated to be erroneous or fraudulent. Beginning in 2017, the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015 requires the Internal Revenue Service to spend additional time processing early EITC claims, delaying the issuance of tax refunds. Leveraging unique data, we investigate how delayed tax refunds affected the experience of hardship and unsecured debt among EITC recipients. We find that early filers experienced increased food insecurity relative to later filers after the implementation of the refund delay.

Tax-time saving and the earned income tax credit: results from online field and survey experiments

Tax refunds are an opportunity for Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) recipients to build emergency savings. Randomly assigned behavioral interventions in 2015 and 2016 have statistically significant impacts on refund saving take-up and amounts among EITC recipients who filed their taxes online. From a survey experiment, we also find that EITC recipients have a 49 percent and 59 percent increased likelihood of deferring 20 percent of their refunds for six months when hypothetically offered 25 and 50 percent savings matches (p < .001), respectively. These findings can inform policy development related to encouraging emergency saving at tax time.

Promoting public retirement savings accounts during tax filing: evidence from a field experiment

Many U.S. households—especially those with low- to moderate-incomes (LMI)—struggle to save for retirement. To address this issue, the Department of the Treasury launched myRA, a no-fee retirement account designed primarily to help people who lacked access to employer-sponsored plans build retirement savings. In this paper, we report findings from two myRA-focused field experiments, both of which were administered to well over 100,000 LMI online tax filers before and during the 2016 tax season. The first experiment involved sending one of three different myRA-focused email messages to tax filers immediately prior to tax season, and the second experiment involved incorporating myRA-focused messages and choice architecture directly into an online tax filing platform. Messages were chosen to address different barriers to retirement savings LMI households may face. We find that, though the general level of interest in myRA was very low in this population, interest and enrollment in myRA depends heavily on the way in which the benefits of the accounts are framed. Results from both experiments indicate that messages emphasizing the possibility of receiving a larger refund in the future were the most effective at increasing interest in myRA, while messages focused around the simplicity and ease of use of the accounts were less effective. We also conduct several subsample analyses to investigate the extent to which these effects differed by key household characteristics.

The impact of tax refund delays on the experience of hardship and unsecured debt

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) provides substantial financial support to low-income workers, yet around a quarter of EITC payments are estimated to be erroneous or fraudulent. Beginning in 2017, the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015 requires the Internal Revenue Service to spend additional time processing early EITC claims, delaying the issuance of tax refunds. Leveraging unique data, we investigate how delayed tax refunds affected the experience of hardship and unsecured debt among EITC recipients. We find that early filers experienced increased food insecurity relative to later filers after the implementation of the refund delay.

Using financial tips to guide debt repayment: experimental evidence from low-and moderate-income tax filers

Much of the literature on household finances tends to focus on discrete or relatively objective measures like savings, debt, economic mobility, and there has been a lack of research on holistic measures of financial well-being. This gap is due in part to the absence of a common understanding of how to define and measure financial well-being; a gap that was recently addressed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s development of a financial well-being scale. However, the research on this scale is still scarce and little is known about how financial well-being evolves over time. To that end, this paper uses a two-wave survey of low- and moderate-income tax filers to present the first longitudinal analysis of the CFPB’s financial well-being scale. Using a combination of descriptive analysis, OLS regression, and fixed effects panel regression, we assess (1) the stability of financial well-being over a six-month period; (2) the extent to which household characteristics predict volatility in financial well-being; and (3) the relationship between the experience of adverse financial events, including financial shocks and material hardships, and financial well-being. We find that financial well-being scores are extremely stable over the short-term, and that household characteristics are generally not strong predictors of financial well-being changes. We also find that, while adverse financial events like the loss of a job are significantly associated with declines in financial well-being, these changes are not large. These findings have implications for researchers and practitioners interested in using the financial well-being scale in program and policy evaluations.

Does Savings Affect Participation in the Gig Economy? Evidence from a Tax Refund Field Experiment

This paper investigates how saving the federal tax refund affects gig economy participation for low-income online tax filers in the six months following tax filing. Using longitudinal survey and administrative data, we leverage random assignment in a unique refund savings experiment as an instrument for refund savings. We find significant heterogeneity in estimated effects that are consistent […]

Nothing to Show for It: Non-Degreed Debt and the Financial Circumstances Associated with It

The number of individuals with student loan debt who do not earn their degrees is on the rise; nevertheless, there is little research that demonstrates the financial conditions and circumstances of these individuals. We address this knowledge gap by comparing the financial outcomes of student debt-holders who started college but did not earn a degree—those […]

The Impact of Gig-Economy on Financial Hardship among Low-Income Families” Kaitlin Daniels, Olin Business School at Washington University

As the gig economy plays an increasingly important role in the labor market, there is a need to understand the economic factors that influence participation in this sector. In this paper, we investigate how saving the federal tax refund affects gig economy participation for low-income online tax filers in the six months following tax filing. […]

A toolkit for expanding financial capability at tax time

This work expands upon The Volunteer Income Tax Preparer’s Toolkit: Showing Clients Why Tax Time is the Right Time to Save, a 2015 Toolkit by the Center for Social Development (CSD). This new offering presents the current evidence underpinning various tax-time efforts to expand financial capability among LMI households. It includes sections on creating a […]

Effects of a tax-time savings experiment on material and health care hardship among low-income filers

Material and health care hardship is common among households with low incomes and is associated with a host of adverse outcomes but can be mitigated with having savings. The authors assessed the effects of online tax-time savings interventions informed by behavioral economics on hardship among a sample of low- and moderate-income tax filers (N = 4,738). The […]

Encouraging Tax‐Time Savings With A Low‐Touch, Large‐Scale Intervention: Evidence From The Refund To Savings Experiment

Low‐ and moderate‐income households often struggle to save, but the annual tax refund represents a prime opportunity for these households to save toward their financial goals or build their emergency savings. This paper presents the results of a randomized, controlled experiment embedded in a free tax‐preparation product offered in 2013 to low‐ and moderate‐income households. […]

Effects of a randomized tax-time savings intervention on savings account ownership among low- and moderate-income households

Being unbanked makes it difficult for low and moderate-income (LMI) households to manage finances, save, and access credit. We assessed effects of an online tax-time savings intervention on savings account openings in the 6 months following tax filing among a sample of4,692 LMI tax filers. Treatment group participants had 60% greater odds of opening a […]

Financial shocks, liquid assets, and material hardship in low- and moderate-income households: Differences by race

Low- and moderate-income (LMI) households need financial assets to help cope with income and expenditure shocks. Prior research identifies racial differences in wealth and wealth effects. We examined whether these gaps and effects exist for liquid financial assets. Using group invariance tests in structural equation modeling, we assessed the relationship between financial shocks and material […]

Promoting savings at tax time: Insights from online and in-person tax preparation services

This report presents findings and insights from Refund to Savings: Applications for myRA, a collaborative project involving the U.S. Department of the Treasury, Washington University in St. Louis, and Intuit, Inc. The project explored methods of promoting the myRA (My Retirement Account) savings program at tax time—that is, when households file their taxes. It focused specifically on […]

Behavioral interventions to increase tax-time saving: Evidence from a national randomized trial

Too many households have too little set aside for emergencies, long-term goals, or retirement. This study presents evidence from the Refund to Savings Initiative, a large-scale randomized experiment testing interventions to increase household savings by encouraging filers to set aside a portion of their tax returns. Grounded in techniques of behavioral economics, these interventions are […]

The role of choice architecture in promoting saving at tax time: Evidence from a large-scale field experiment

Tax refunds give many low-and moderate-income (LMI) households a rare opportunity to save for unexpected expenses. We conducted three experiments aimed at increasing tax-time savings by LMI consumers. In a large field experiment, the most effective intervention increased the average savings deposits by about 50%. Delivered as people filed taxes online, this treatment consisted of […]

Effects of a tax-time savings intervention on use of alternative financial services among lower-income households

Alternative financial services (AFS) such as check cashing and payday loans may help unbanked households meet transaction and credit needs, yet often at a very high price. Saving tax refunds can help low- and moderate-income (LMI) households build emergency savings as a way to reduce dependence on AFS and cope effectively with irregular cash flows […]

Home delinquency rates are lower among ACA Marketplace households: Evidence from a natural experiment

This brief uses administrative income tax data coupled with survey responses from roughly 5,000 households living near the poverty line to estimate how access to the Affordable Care Act’s health insurance Marketplaces have affected households’ experiences of extreme illiquidity, which is measured by delinquencies on home payments. To estimate this relationship, we exploit a natural […]

Coping with a crisis: Financial resources available to low- and moderate-income households in emergencies

Using data from tax records and a longitudinal survey, this brief investigates the choices low- and moderate-income households make about their tax withholding and their preferences for withholding. The relationship between withholding preferences and the use of the tax refund, measures of material hardship, and the use of alternative financial services is also explored. We […]

Do tax-time savings deposits reduce hardship among low-income filers? A propensity score analysis

A lack of emergency savings renders low-income households vulnerable to material hardships resulting from unexpected expenses or loss of income. Having emergency savings helps these households respond to unexpected events, maintain consumption, and avoid high-cost credit products. Because many low-income households receive sizable federal tax refunds, tax time is an opportunity for these households to […]

Characteristics and hardships associated with bank account ownership among Refund to Savings participants

Having a bank account is one important way for households to securely accumulate savings, build credit, and earn interest on assets. Nationally, 7.7% of households are unbanked—lacking both a checking and a savings account. One proposed step toward financial inclusion is to encourage unbanked households to open accounts and deposit refunds into savings at tax […]

The role of health insurance in the financial lives of low- and moderate-income households

Health insurance is an important resource for enabling access to and use of medical care, and is associated with reduced risk for mortality and poor health outcomes. Health insurance also protects households from incurring major medical expenses and unmanageable levels of medical debt. About a quarter of a sample of low- and moderate-income (LMI) tax […]

Use of alternative financial services in low- and moderate-income households: Evidence from Refund to Savings

Unable to conduct everyday financial transactions without a bank account or in need of flexible, shortterm credit, many low- and moderate-income (LMI) households turn to alternative financial services (AFSs). This brief summarizes research on AFS use among LMI tax filers participating in the Refund to Savings (R2S) Initiative. We make an important contribution to AFS […]

Refund to Savings 2013: Comprehensive report on a large-scale tax-time saving program

Improving the financial security of low- and middle-income households through the savings of federal tax refunds is the central mission for the Refund to Savings (R2S) initiative. It is important to understand the context in which those households are trying to save and the methods of coping with contingencies when savings are not available. Such […]