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Jo Ann Barefoot explores how to create fair and inclusive consumer financial services through innovative ideas for industry and regulators

Real Lives: Rachel Schneider and the Financial Diaries

Barefoot Innovation Podcast

Real Lives: Rachel Schneider and the Financial Diaries

Jo Ann Barefoot

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If you spend a lot of time in Washington, as I do, you see a lot of issues framed around statistics about people, especially medians, and averages. For instance, policies aimed at helping lower-income people typically stratify Americans into categories, in bands above and below median income, or median incomes in their census tracts. I’ve worked with programs like this for decades -- HUD housing and mortgage programs, the Community Reinvestment Act, and many others.

And then one day, someone comes along and goes inside those data categories, and finds out what’s really happening in the lives of the people covered by them. And it turns out to be surprising.

That is exactly what today’s guest did. She is Rachel Schneider, Senior Vice President of the Center For Financial Services Innovation and co-author of the new book, The Financial Diaries: How American Families Cope in a World of Uncertainty.  Some years ago, Rachel joined a CFSI study trip to South Africa where she learned about financial diaries methodology -- intimate research that tracks the daily financial lives of individual consumer households. With funding from several organizations including the Omidyar Network, she and NYU Professor Jonathan Morduch undertook a diaries project in the United States. They identified a cross-section of America -- 235 families in a wide variety of circumstances, in communities ranging from Mississippi to Ohio to California to New York City, and had a team spend over a year with each one, mapping every bit of money that flowed into and out of each household.

Not surprisingly, they found some alarming trends, which other research has revealed as well. A full fifty-seven percent of households today are considered financially unhealthy -- including a third of those with incomes over $100,000 a year.

But by looking closely, they found much more. In particular, they spotlighted a huge issue that had been traditionally masked by the statistical averages -- namely that for many people, the most pressing problem is not actually lack of money, but rather volatility. It turns out that millions of Americans live within their means, in that they spend less than they earn, but struggle nevertheless because they have volatile and unpredictable earnings and expenses. Since they also lack savings, they can’t cushion or smooth out their expense spikes and income troughs without relying on high-cost services like payday loans and checking account overdrafts. It’s worth pondering the irony that these consumers can afford financial services, as evidenced by the fact that they do -- they actually pay more in interest and fees than other people do. But they are not well-matched to our current models of products, pricing, money management, and risk assessment.

CFSI’s research has also revealed something else: families that appear identical in the statistical averages may actually be in completely different situations. Some are rising while others are sinking. And some are overwhelmed and confused by financial management, while others are the best money managers in the population, because they have to be -- have to know exactly how much money they will earn, and when it will be in their account, and exactly how much they must pay, and precisely when, and which bills have timing leeway and grace periods and which don’t, and then must strategically plan and execute the daily, weekly, and monthly financial plan.

As we’ve discussed in other shows, innovators are working on all these problems -- more affordable smoothing solutions, easier saving, better saving psychology, effortless financial management, ladders toward good credit scores, new data that more accurately evaluate credit risk, and more. We’ve talked about those in past shows and will cover many more going forward. Most of these innovators begin by trying to understand customers’ real-life ways of using money, including by bringing in behavioral science -- recognizing that finance is not just a cerebral process but also an emotional, and social, one. The financial industry will do even better as it aligns the products offered with the ways people think and feel about them.

For this deeper understanding, nothing is more illuminating than Rachel’s book. In today’s show, she helps us get to know some of the people the Diaries tracked, see a little bit into their lives, and learn the strategies they use to make ends meet. In the process, she gives us a lot to think about, beyond the statistics.

So...buy the book! It’s in the show notes at jsbarefoot.com. And meanwhile, enjoy my conversation with Financial Diaries author Rachel Schneider.

More about Rachel and her work

Rachel Schneider is a Senior Vice President at CFSI, and co-author of The Financial Diaries: How American Families Cope in a World of Uncertainty. The Financial Diaries connects the findings of the ground-breaking U.S. Financial Diaries research project, which collected highly detailed data about how 235 households save, spend, borrow and plan over the course of a year, with the broad trends upending the economic lives of American families. It uncovers the emergence of a hidden inequality, in addition to disparities in income and wealth – an inequality in access to steady finances. It provides a framework for how to develop products and policies that can help.

Rachel is highly sought-after as a consultant and speaker, Her research has been featured in the nation’s top publications, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and many others, and she speaks frequently at a broad spectrum of events.

Though she began her career as an investment banker at Merrill Lynch & Co., Rachel credits her commitment to the potential for innovative finance to solve major social problems from her days as a VISTA Volunteer (now AmeriCorps). She holds a J.D./M.B.A. from the University of Chicago, and a B.A. from UC Berkeley. She lives in New York City with her husband and their two children. She occasionally “competes” in triathlons, which are getting easier to “win” as the number of competitors in her age group shrinks. She says the same cannot be said for improvement in her piano skills.

Here are other resources, including items mentioned in the episode:

More for our listeners

The next two months will bring a podcast bonanza to Barefoot Innovation, with amazing shows coming up. I just recorded a fascinating one with Christopher Woolard of the UK Financial Conduct Authority on the FCA’s innovation initiative, including lessons learned so far from their famous regulatory sandbox. We’ll also have one with the Nick Cook, who leads the FCA’s innovation work on regtech. We have one coming up with Wells Fargo’s Braden More on payments innovation. We’ll have Nerd Wallet CEO Tim Chen, and Cross River Bank CEO Gilles Gade. We’ll record one in London with the trade association Innovate Finance, and on this side of the pond, we’ll have a show with Financial Services Roundtable CEO Tim Pawlenty...to name a few!

And, I’ll be recording a special series straight from the floor of the American Bankers Association conference on financial crimes, in December.

I hope to see many of you there and at other upcoming events. My speech schedule is packed solid from now to the end of the year, which is an indicator of the fast-growing interest in fintech regulation and in regtech. I recently spoke at five events in four cities in four days, and here is some of what’s coming up.

Please remember to review Barefoot Innovation on iTunes, and sign up to get emails that bring you the newest podcast, newsletter, and blog posts, at jsbarefoot.com. Be sure to follow me on twitter and facebook.  And please send in your “buck a show” to keep Barefoot Innovation going.

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