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Consumer Financial Lives in Transition: Approaches, Insights, and Future Directions

This report reviews research findings on the financial lives and livelihoods of consumers, identifies new forms of economic struggle and financial fragility, and outlines a research agenda to support credit union efforts seeking to improve the financial and physical well-being of their members.

Executive Summary

Big moments of change, from the expected to the unexpected, reveal the underlying conditions that have weakened household balance sheets. Filene Research Institute’s Center of Excellence for Consumer Financial Lives in Transition is a four-year project aimed at tracking the changing financial lives and livelihoods of consumers, new forms of economic struggle and financial fragility, and how these changes impact the North American credit union system.

What is the research about? 

This report lays out the rationale for focusing on the changing financial lives and livelihoods of consumers and new forms of economic struggle and financial fragility, identifies the broad areas of research the Center will engage, and envisions the Center’s long-term objectives. 

Credit unions serve an increasingly diverse consumer base characterized by evolving attitudes, activities, and heightened vulnerability. The Center seeks to produce research that will contribute to greater understanding of changing consumer needs and expectations for financial services, while also identifying actionable insights and steps that credit unions can take to promote greater financial and physical well-being for members. 

The research plan will uncover two major categories of transitions that come together to shape and reshape people’s financial lives: shifts in the economic and political environment such as disappearing safety nets, and life-cycle/lifestyle changes such as the changing nature of work, health, family, and justice involvement. Future research will be undertaken from the perspective of how credit unions can respond to mitigate the impact of economic and political shifts affecting members’ financial health. Future work will provide greater clarity of the larger political and economic events and transformations that demand our attention if we endeavor to better understand our members’ financial lives today.

What are the credit union implications? 

The Center produces work that will connect cutting-edge research with practices, strategies, and concrete insights that credit unions can implement to better support their members. Credit unions can address and help alleviate historically created burdens by understanding the frequency, timing, and disparate impacts of when and how people move through financial transitions. Developing a grasp of the challenges facing so many people right now and understanding the larger political and economic shifts that are undergirding these challenges is becoming increasingly important, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic amplifies preexisting trends.

The work of the Center will help credit unions embrace their mission of serving the people in their communities. The identified transitions and their accompanying challenges have changed what consumers need from their financial institutions. By paying attention to the financial transitions members and potential members are undergoing, credit unions will also better distinguish themselves from banks and other financial institutions. We feel confident that our work will enable credit unions to be responsive to these needs and better positioned to meet their members where they are.

Filene’s Center for Consumer Financial Lives in Transition is generously funded by:

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