Free Money, No Joke*

By Jeffrey Bridgman

I’m not laughing, but you could be smiling big time by the time you get to the end of this article. I’m about to bust the top off of the well-kept secret about Individual Development Accounts (IDAs), savings tools that double your money. You save $1000, you get $2000. Sweet! And no, this is not some high-risk investment. Read on.
IDAs can help non-savers become big-time savers in short order. They are savings accounts designed to help us actually achieve our savings goals by matching what we save dollar-for-dollar or even more. It’s free money! IDAs are specifically designed to help people with low to moderate incomes save toward a specific goal which will give them more financial stability in the future. This can include buying assets like a house or a car, starting your own business, getting vocational training, going to college, or even just buying textbooks.
Eligibility varies, as these programs are run locally, but usually income limits are based on the federal poverty guidelines or local income averages. (Learn more about poverty guidelines.)The program in my area said that the income limit is 185% of the federal poverty guidelines. Since there is only one person in my household, as long as my income is less than $20,146.50 annually, I qualify. And even if my income goes above that limit after I graduate from college, I can still continue in the program. Additionally, programs may require a minimum contribution each month, but seeing as they are designed to work with people with low income, the minimum deposit is not overbearing. Details vary with each program, but usually taking some classes on budgeting and managing finances are also part of the deal since the IDA is designed to help people learn to be better stewards of their finances and to create lifelong habits of saving.
But how does it work? Local non-profit organizations act as the sponsors for the IDA program. They work with local banks or credit unions to do the actual banking. Funds come from a combination of federal and state government grants, such as the Assets for Independence Program. Charities, corporations, and private foundations are often included. A website run by the Corporation for Economic Development provides more information about IDAs, in general, as well as a directory with information about local programs. For example, my rather small state has six different IDA program locations.
Do you find it hard to save? Do you start and then stop? Do big goals overwhelm you? Do you begin to doubt you’ll ever reach them and then chisel away at your savings for things like car repairs and Christmas presents?
When I have tried to save money in the past, I always second-guess my future: What if I don’t save enough? What if I change my goal before the time comes to spend it? What if I get married and decide I would be happier just staying where I am now? If you have similar struggles when it comes to saving money, especially for way down the road, find a local IDA program and give them a call. This first step, which you owe it to yourself to take, will take 10 minutes max, and it could have a huge, positive impact for your future.
I know I could use some help saving towards graduate school. I think I’ll give it a try and I’ll let you know how it goes.

*For those with low to moderate income who qualify

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