Community Service

Four Steps to a Successful Financial Education Program

Educators say these efforts can be life-changing for everyone involved.

April 23, 2014
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Credit union folks who commit to financial education programs often say it’s life-changing for both members and themselves.

Embracing financial education programs also leads to many positive returns for credit unions—they’re seen as do-gooders in the community. It’s really a win-win, say financial education advocates.

“You get more hugs and people love your credit union,” says Kathryn Greiner, director of credit education at $519 million asset University of Michigan Credit Union in Ann Arbor. "It will bond your members to your credit union. They won't want to cause a loss because they're very dependent on the wonderful support and service that they get."

Greiner and other financial counseling advocates recently shared their experiences and four tips to successful financial education programs in a recent CUNA webinar, “Successful Financial Counseling and Education Programs.”

1. Make it simple

The goal of a successful financial education program should be to teach people how to help themselves. "I provide members the tools they need to continue after they have seen me," says Greiner of the one-on-one counseling sessions she conducts at University of Michigan Credit Union, which views financial counseling for members as a way to reduce bankruptcy risk.

“The whole goal is to simplify budgeting,” she says.

First, Greiner works with troubled members to write a budget analysis that lists income, base living expenses, and debts. Then, together they use an Excel form to develop a monthly spending plan so members always know what they can spend and enjoy, what goes to bills, and what to savings.

Greiner emails the forms to the members so they can continue the process on their own.

The spending plan includes using sub accounts to create savings accounts with names to clarify their purpose. Setting up automatic transfers to each sub account makes it “like paying a bill,” she says. “I found that when people had an understandable, livable budget and spending plan… they didn’t need to go bankrupt. They just needed to see an end to the debt—how they were going to do it.”

2. Discover your path

There is no substitute for rolling up your sleeves and sitting down with members, says Certified Credit Union Financial Counselor Sandie McKay of $270 million asset Option 1 Credit Union in Grand Rapids, Mich.

“Practice and gain experience in one-on-one counseling: this will be your greatest asset,” she says.

McKay encourages new or prospective financial counselors to develop strengths outside of counseling. Find an area of financial education that matters to you, she advises. “Find that one thing that you are passionate about and can focus on and it will stay with you for the rest of your life.”

McKay’s passion is for adult education and protecting vulnerable members from fraud and scams, she says.

Once you have a focus, keep it simple and grow your program slowly. Don’t take on too much, McKay says, but spread the word as much as possible, including with credit union colleagues.

3. Understand the value

When trying to quantify the value of financial education, Sarah Borland asks rhetorically: What’s the ROA of changing someone’s life?

Borland is the director of business development and public relations at $387 million asset BMI Federal Credit Union in Dublin, Ohio. She chairs the institution’s financial education program, which involves staff across many departments.

Borland says her credit union’s board of directors emphasizes the program’s importance. “For us financial education is not a choice, but a way of life. It is who we are, and because we live by our mission and not sales goals we can be devoted to providing our members with the services that are in their best interest.”

The effort makes a difference, she says. People see the value in the services the credit union provides. It builds goodwill with members, the community, and staff that “love to hear how we are helping,” Borland says.

“It is a really powerful message when you take your financial education efforts out into the community,” she says.

The webinar, which is available as a recording, is part of CUNA's Exploring Financial Counseling Models Webinar Series.

4. Become a certified financial counselor

CUNA offers a variety of pathways to become a certified financial counselor, says the webinar’s organizer, Courtney Cantwell, instructional design manager at CUNA.

One option is the upcoming Certified Financial Counselor School in Tempe, Ariz., June 9-12.

For more information about the school or CUNA’s Credit Union Financial Counseling Certification Program, contact Cantwell via email or at 608-231-4045.

CRAIG SAUER is Credit Union Magazine's associate editor. Follow him on Twitter via @CUNACraig.

Financial Education Programs

Jim Wells
April 23, 2014 11:06 am
Congratulations on a fine article. Perhaps the best advise is unsaid but exemplified throughout the article - namely avoiding the use of the term "Financial Literacy." The term is insulting and counterproductive because it implies that those who take the training are "Illiterate."

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