Wednesday, February 18, 2015

It helps to know how to save

The great middle-class virtue is the ability to delay gratification. We could spend all our money now, but wouldn't we be better off if we saved some of it for the future?
We could take the best job we can get as soon as we're old enough to leave school, but wouldn't it be better to stay on in education and eventually get a more highly paid and satisfying job?
Research confirms that the better you are at controlling your natural desire for immediate gratification, the better your life is likely to be.
But those of us who have been imbued with these attitudes and abilities by our parents have a tendency to judge those who lack them with undue harshness. We care about the poor, of course, but we have a big category for the undeserving poor.
All those who could find a job if they wanted to. All those who don't take the simple precaution of buying insurance. All those who can't even budget properly. Poor people who spend their incomes on wide-screen TVs and smartphones. Poor people who still smoke.
If we were as poor as that we'd jolly well know how to lift ourselves out of it. And if we could do it, so can they.
The truth is we're too harsh in our judgments. Partly this is a tendency to give ourselves more credit for our comfortable lives than we should. We imagine ourselves to be "self-made", taking all the credit for choosing our parents wisely. We forget how much we inherited - if not in money and a good education then in attitudes and example.
But another part of our harshness is our inability to appreciate how hard it can be to pull yourself up by your bootstraps when you're at rock bottom. Few of us have the remotest idea of how we'd make ends meet on $427 a week for a single pensioner or less than $300 a week for singles on the dole.
We have little idea of how much harder it is with not a bean to fall back on when unexpected bills arrive, or how financial difficulties can multiply when you simply can't afford insurance.
And yet it is true that some people on welfare benefits or among the working poor would benefit from being helped to acquire the saving habit.
This is where I have encouraging news. Ten years ago the ANZ Bank and the Brotherhood of St Laurence got together to design a program to encourage people on very low incomes to save. They were later joined by the Smith Family, the Benevolent Society and the Berry Street organisation. In 2009, the federal government began giving grants to help them spread the program across Australia.
On Wednesday the bank and the charities will release a 10-year review of the performance of Saver Plus, conducted by Roslyn Russell, Mark Stewart and Felicity Cull, of RMIT University.
It's been a remarkable success. So much so that this, the first matched-saving program in Australia, is now the largest and longest-running program of its kind in the world.
As it has evolved, the scheme now requires people to agree to save up to $500 over 10 months. Achieve that and ANZ will match it, leaving you with up to $1000 to spend on your child's or your own education. You set your spending goal at the outset.
The program also involves four financial education workshops covering planning and budgeting, saving and spending, everyday banking, and planning for the future. Participants have access to a Saver Plus worker for advice and help should difficulties arise.
Eligibility is limited to people with a healthcare or pensioner card and regular income from paid employment, as well as a need to cover education expenses.
The program has had more than 23,000 participants, 86 per cent of whom are women. It now operates at 60 locations across all states, with more than 500 ANZ branches making referrals.
About 15,000 people have fully achieved their target, with only 12 per cent withdrawing from the program. So far participants have saved $13.6 million, with the ANZ adding more than $10 million.
You may think ending up with savings of as little as $1000 doesn't prove much, but it's really about acquiring the saving habit. And 87 per cent of people who completed the program say they've continued saving the same amount or more.
Great majorities of completed participants say they now have increased self-esteem and increased confidence, are better able to deal with financial problems, have more control over their finances, are better equipped to deal with unexpected expenses and experience less stress about the future.
About 27 per cent have taken out insurance policies and 19 per cent have increased their super contributions.
"Having education as the saving goal ... has been a large contributing factor to the value of the program to individuals and society," the report concludes.
"It has increased access to education for many participants and enhanced the quality of education for children and adults. Positive experiences of education - for children especially - have significant long-term benefits and increase development opportunities throughout their lives."
One point to add. The program's federal funding comes up for renewal in June. You'd hope this stuff is right up the Coalition's alley.