IDA savings earn a car, confidence and peace of mind

Nicole Johnson found bottom.

She was 22, addicted and more than $10,000 in debt. She was homeless with two toddlers she’d forgotten how to mother, and without confidence that she could create a better life.

Nicole Johnson with Marisa and GabrielDesperate, she asked for help. “I found out I couldn’t do it alone. I couldn’t manage anything on my own anymore.” For the next three years, as Nicole moved through a shelter, a group home, and a transitional apartment, counselors taught her how to nurture Gabriel and Marisaand herself. “I learned how to cope, forgive myself and just live a better life and set a good example for them,” she says.

She also got a job. While the shelter deposited three-quarters of her pay into a savings account, Nicole learned what she needed to do to get out from under her bills. This was a new concept. “I never thought I was going to make it anywhere financially. It was like, ‘I don’t have enough money for that, so what do I care?’ ” she said.

Kicking addiction was tough. So were reconnecting with her children and her better self. But when Nicole felt ready to live independently and got an apartment in Nashua, N.H., her biggest barrier wasn’t herselfit was transportation.

Her aging car roared, rattled, and seized up. Nicole frequently missed her kids’ medical appointments. She passed up a promotion because it required a 25-mile commute.

So she reached out again, this time to the Community Loan Fund’s Individual Development Accounts (IDA), a matched-savings program that helps people with limited incomes save for a home or car, to start or expand a business, or to continue their education. She opened her IDA account through More Than Wheels, an organization that helps people build financial skills and buy affordable, reliable cars.

Pooling her previous savings, a tax refund, her six months of IDA savings, plus IDA’s three-to-one match, Nicole had nearly $10,000 to put down on a reliable car. More Than Wheels helped her get a good price and a monthly payment under $100.

The experience, Nicole says, “helped me emotionally, it helped me psychologically.” It tested her new self: Reaching her savings goal would mean a safe, dependable car, a shining symbol of her fresh start; not reaching the goal meant continuing to worry how she’d get the kids to the doctor.

Nicole got the car, promotion, and some hard-earned peace of mind. Now, she and her children have an apartment, and she’s studying for a bachelor’s degree. She’s off all public assistance and says, “It feels good to be one of those people who’s contributing to society.”

“It makes me feel good because I can show my kids that they don’t have to feel defeated, that if there’s something they want to, they can do it,” she says. “It may take a while, but they can do it.”

This article was originally published in the New Hampshire Community Loan Fund's 2011 Annual Report.