April Bradley never imagined she?d be where she is today: picking out paint colors and furniture for a Baltimore rowhouse with her name on the property title.
Six years ago, Bradley was a 27-year-old single mother more concerned about paying the monthly bills and making rent than whether she?d ever own a home, send her son to college or retire.
That changed when she turned to Baltimore CASH Campaign, a financial services nonprofit that Bradley had heard was doing taxes for free. The organization?s volunteers convinced Bradley to use part of her tax refund to buy savings bonds, and she made it a habit.
Financial education advocates see tax season as an opportunity to help nonsavers start new saving habits. More than 70 percent of people who file taxes are expected to get money back. Last year, the average refund was $3,120, but low-income workers who qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit could receive twice as much. Many people stand to receive a cash windfall, and advocates are encouraging them to invest or save part of their refund.
They say such efforts are especially important in cities like Baltimore, where about a quarter of residents don?t have bank accounts or lack access to full financial services, and instead rely on cash checking services, payday loans and pawnshops.
?When people have this windfall of money, they view it as found money,? said Sara Johnson, the director of the Baltimore CASH Campaign. ?Giving them options for what to do with it and encouraging them to save some of it is really important.?
Six years ago, Bradley was just like millions of Americans who don?t save, either because they think their monthly budget is too tight or they are new to the workforce and not sure how to get started. Some can?t open accounts at traditional financial institutions because of past offenses such as writing bad checks.
Bradley parlayed her savings habit into her now home, a three-bedroom, two-bathroom center unit. She cashed in her savings bonds in December and bought it outright.
It?s far from her dream home ? the water tank broke within two weeks of moving in ? but it?s proof that she has control over her future.
?I was still so happy, even without hot water, knowing this house is mine,? Bradley said. ?No one can come and take it from me.?
Baltimore CASH Campaign heads into tax season like an army heading into battle, deploying more than 240 volunteer tax preparers and financial planners to makeshift tax preparation offices in 15 churches, schools and community centers around the Baltimore area. Last year, they spent about 3,700 hours helping families with household incomes of less than $54,000 file their taxes for free, and expect to put in about as much time before the sun sets on the 2017 tax season. The 2017 deadline for federal taxes is April 18.