Project
USFD is a research project tracking more than 200 low- and moderate-income households over the course of a year, and collecting highly detailed data on household financial activitys.

Partners: New York University’s Financial Access Initiative (NYU-FAI),The Center for Financial Services Innovation (CFSI), and Bankable Frontier Associates (BFA)

Principal Investigators: Jonathan Morduch (NYU-FAI), Rachel Schneider (CFSI) and Daryl Collins (BFA)

Funders: Ford Foundation and Citi Foundation, with additional support and guidance from the Omidyar Network

Sites: Cincinnati /Northern Kentucky area, Eastern Mississippi, San Jose, CA area, and New York City

The Financial Diaries methodology, which will be used to conduct this research, has been successfully applied in Bangladesh, India and South Africa. The results are detailed in the groundbreaking book Portfolios of the Poor: How the World's Poor Live on $2 a Day (Princeton University Press, 2009), which has been instrumental in broadening conceptions of global poverty. The book reveals that poor households lead surprisingly active and sophisticated financial lives, driven by the need to cope with irregular and unpredictable incomes but few reliable tools to absorb economic shocks.

"Improving access to reliable, flexible financial products and services is an important step to help poor and low-income households better manage their economic lives," says Jonathan Morduch, managing director of the Financial Access Initiative. The Financial Diaries research has proven to be an effective means of gathering important information to inform the design of these kinds of financial tools.

"The findings in Portfolios of the Poor provided an eye-opening look at the financial lives of the poor in other countries, and we're excited to use this lens in the U.S. context: says Brandee McHale, Chief Operating Officer at the Citi Foundation. "This research can fill an important gap in the current data on how low-income families in our own backyards are making ends meet and help reduce the barriers to financial well-being that these families currently face." In the U.S., the Federal Deposit Insurance Company (FDIC) found that some 17 million adults live in households without any bank accounts. Another 43 million have accounts but are "underbanked," relying on non-bank services such as pay-day lenders and pawn shops. Yet, there is little concrete data about the needs, preferences and use of financial services by low-income families."

"Remarkably, more than 30 million low-income families across the U.S. lack access to traditional banking and financial systems," says Frank DeGiovanni, director of financial assets at the Ford Foundation. This landmark study will help us to better understand their financial lives, greatly improving the ability the financial industry of nonprofits, and policymakers to meet their needs and increase the quality, affordability, and accessibility of financial services."

To conduct this groundbreaking research, the U.S. Financial Diaries team will spend a year with more than 200 families, distributed across 4 research sites—in the South, the Northeast, the Midwest and the West. Researchers will meet with families every two weeks to collect highly detailed data on household cash flows.

This methodology of regularly observing household finances over long periods of time allows researchers to identify often-overlooked strategies of financial management, such as the use of informal borrowing and lending with neighbors and family members. The study is designed to capture spending and savings habits that often remain hidden in large surveys. The findings will be published in a series of reports beginning in mid-2013.