REWIND: The key to successful savings programs

Saving is like magic, in that sense that advanced science is like magic: profound and yet ultimately logical. Saving is a simple financial behaviour which can transform lives. It changes mindsets, creates aspirations and improves wellbeing.

The concept of matched savings programs was a social innovation developed in the early ‘90s by  American researcher, Professor Michael Sherraden, who hypothesised if low-income individuals were provided with appropriate incentives and frameworks they could and would save.

"[Saving] changes mindsets, creates aspirations and improves wellbeing."
Professor Roslyn Russell, Principal Research Fellow, RMIT University

Sherraden argued the opportunity to accumulate assets and wealth should be afforded to all, not just middle- to high-income earners.

In the decades sincechang, programs based on individual development accounts like ANZ’s Saver Plus have unequivocally confirmed Sherraden’s hypothesis. Participants can and do save. And continue to save following program completion.

This ongoing savings behaviour has helped families build stronger financial futures and has expanded their economic opportunities.  Education endeavours have been facilitated for adults, young people and children connected with these programs.

Financial literacy and savings programs are increasingly important as rapidly evolving technologies change the way people save and spend their money.

So what are the mechanisms central to the success of such programs? Why do they work? A number of elements are important but based on my evaluations there are two factors that appear to be most critical: a high rate of women participants and the power of goals.


As the world’s longest-running matched savings program, ANZ’s Saver Plus has supported over 32,000 Australian households to develop a long-term savings habit.

A key success factor for Saver Plus has been the partnership model central to the development and delivery of the program. The quality and strength of this long-term partnership between ANZ, the Brotherhood of St Laurence and the other community partners have been central to its credibility and sustainability.

The significant financial and in-kind support provided by ANZ and, more recently, the Australian Government has also been a key factor in the sustainability of Saver Plus.

Is Saver Plus a good investment? In my opinion yes. Along with saving, participants reduce debt, gain control of their finances, reduce stress and find hope. They move from a mindset of ‘just getting by’ to having a plan for the future. These are good reasons to bring the program to many more Australians in the future.

You can read the 2016 Saver Plus report HERE.


While women and men both gain from savings programs, research shows they are more likely to appeal to women and have a profound impact on the lives of women and their families. In many cases the vast majority of participants are women, many of them sole parents.

Savings programs create opportunities for women to act on their particular values and priorities. They give women the means to improve their children’s education experience, enabling them to purchase items like computers, pay for children to attend school camp or participate in other activities, or for the first time provide children with new school uniforms.

These types of opportunities give women greater confidence in raising their families and in turn provide healthy financial habits to younger generations. My recent research into women and money revealed a strong correlation between levels of financial self-efficacy and a positive attitude towards the financial future.

If a program can increase a woman’s level of confidence and self-belief, she will be more likely to have aspirations and a financial plan for the future.


The most successful savings programs utilise the power of goals. Many participants have never set a financial goal prior to participating.

People living on low incomes often believe saving is not for them; rather, financial goals are for those with spare money. Therefore, the concept of saving does not figure in the lives of many Australians who work hard to make ends meet week by week.

For the first time, participants in successful programs are supported to set longer-term goals, work towards them and achieve them. A significant proportion of participants have been shown to continue to save for education products and services, which leads to additional social and economic benefits for their families and society.

The motivation that comes from achieving goals cannot be underestimated. Goal achievement creates a positive feedback cycle, with new opportunities emerging from goals being reached.

In reality, it is not so much the amount saved that creates the magic. It is the action of setting a goal, the changes in financial management behaviour that helps achieve that goal, and then the reward and satisfaction in reaching the goal that holds the power of transformation.


Ongoing evaluations of savings programs like Saver Plus have provided a wealth of evidence on the positive impacts on the lives of participants. These evaluations have also identified the many challenges facing households living on low incomes.

The challenges of being a sole parent or carer, struggling with mental and physical health issues within the family, and navigating complex financial problems are some of the factors that dominate the lives of participants.

We have also learned from participants’ strengths, resourcefulness and resilience, which are often stretched thinly. For many participants, these programs have come at a critical point in their lives, offering a way forward from a financially precarious position towards one of stability.  

Professor Roslyn Russell is a Principal Research Fellow in the School of Economics, Finance and Marketing at RMIT University. Over the last 12 years, Roslyn has led the evaluations of Saver Plus and MoneyMinded for ANZ and its partners, along with other financial capability research for government and community organisations.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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