Microsavings are building wealth penny by penny

Published: Friday, May 3 2013 10:01 p.m. MDT

Bill Gates once said, “If you are poor by birth, it is not your fault. But if your life ends in poverty, this is purely your own mistake.” One thing that can help people born into poverty move out of is saving money, according to development experts.

"There’s a common, misguided, knee-jerk reaction that if you’re poor, you have no assets to save,” said Dean Karlan, a Yale economist who runs the nonprofit Innovations for Poverty Action, in an interview with the Washington Post. “People who are poor obviously save less, but they still save.”

But people, particularly in developing nations, face major obstacles to saving. "The distance between poor villages and bank branches is one of the biggest obstacles to persuading people to put their savings in a bank account. For many, the cost of traveling to the branch is often greater than the amount they have to deposit," reported the Washington Post. Bankable Frontier Associates, a consulting group, found costs as high as $1.29 for a one-way trip to a bank at which 30 percent of the customers lived below the nation’s poverty line.

Instead, people rely on informal saving methods, according to the Washington Post, "such as hiding cash in the house. They may also invest in livestock or jewelry or ask trusted friends or relatives to hold it for them." The trouble with this, reported the Washington Post, is that money saved this way is easily lost or stolen, in some cases eaten by rodents.

To address this issue, savings groups are popping up in many developing nations. The Washington Post describes them as "a hybrid of formal and informal financial systems. The money stays within a tight circle of women, but the regularity and transparency of the transactions mimic, to some extent, deposits in formal bank accounts."

Activists say microsavings can also reach the poorest of the poor, far outside the reaches of the formal banking system, reported the Washington Post. Proponents of microsavings believe the market for this financial product is considerably larger than the market for microcredit, a more frequently discussed financial product for lifting people out of poverty. “Not everyone is an entrepreneur,” Sharon D’Onofrio, executive director of the micofinance SEEP Network, said in an interview with the Washington Post. “Not everyone needs a loan, but everybody needs to save.”

But nonprofit groups dedicated to helping low income people save money are not just for the developing world. A California nonprofit group called Opportunity Fund has been working with low-income residents through a program that encourages savings with a matching program.

"The program promises participants $2 for every $1 they sock away, if they promise to leave the money untouched for at least six months. They also must complete a financial education course and deposit at least $20 a month. The program maxes out once they’ve saved $2,000 of their own money — for a grand total of $6,000." reported the Washington Post. “It kick-starts an entire turnover in their financial life,” said Caitlin McShane, the group’s communications director, in an interview with the Washington Post.

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