A wide range of financial products and services can help individuals and families manage their money, increase their financial stability and build savings. For millions of underbanked Americans, however, these services are either not available or are available only at high cost. Linking these individuals with consumer-friendly services has posed a challenge for banks, credit unions and other institutions that have tried to bridge the gap. Perhaps the biggest challenge has been one of outreach and engagement – how to access the target population at a time and place where they are best prepared to listen to the marketing message and take advantage of the services offered.

The tax preparation moment offers one promising answer. Bank accounts, alternative refund loans and stored value cards can all help tax filers access refunds more quickly and conveniently, and can be an entry point for long-term financial services. At the same time, large tax refunds can open the door to opportunities for saving and investment, including retirement accounts, IDAs and other asset-building strategies. Finally, the upcoming availability of refund splitting offers the potential for significant growth in the number and scale of efforts to link tax preparation with asset development.

Yet linking these pieces is not simple. Despite the access to a target population and the power of the tax moment, programs have still struggled to engage participants at any real scale. The experiences of programs that have pioneered these efforts reveal significant challenges, including marketing services to customers who come focused only on getting their taxes done, and developing products that can effectively compete with the convenience and ease of check cashers. Programs that have had the greatest success tend to be those that have built strong relationships among the partners involved, have engaged in aggressive marketing and outreach, and have reduced barriers or offered special incentives (for example, by waiving fees and requirements or providing matching funds).