Making Financial Literacy Compelling to a Wide Audience

A reader that I’ll call “Maggie” writes in with an interesting question:

I manage a federal TRiO grant at a community college in Arkansas. If our funding proposal is approved again next year, we are required to include programs on financial literacy, as required by the new Higher Ed Authorization Act. We currently offer a money management fair and one or two workshops per semester. However, I’m really interested in your thoughts on how we can offer a full program to the students at low costs. A course in financial literacy would be the best, but I doubt that many would use their time to attend a class that is not required.

I live in a rural area of Arkansas that is very poor. Most of our students qualify as low income and are also first-generation college students. Many of them take out student loans to survive. Large percentages of them don’t make enough money to pay back these loans after they are out of school.

I decided to tackle this question because I know that many readers of The Simple Dollar are involved in situations just like Maggie. I get lots of requests to reprint articles from The Simple Dollar for classes like this, for example.

First of all, I agree with Maggie’s point that a full course in financial literacy at the community college level likely won’t attract a huge amount of interest. Most potential students are either too busy to take a class not directly related to their goals or won’t be interested in the topic – the very people who could actually use the help. I’m also going to assume from her email that her primary goal is to reach the largest number of students possible.

So what’s the solution here? My gut feeling is that a weekly seminar/meeting series, each focused on tight, individual topics, would be the best way to go. Whenever I think about how to present an idea, I break it down into three pieces: getting someone’s attention, keeping that person’s attention while you’re making your point, and making sure that the point sticks with them when they leave. So, let’s look at Maggie’s situation through each of these pieces.

Getting People’s Attention
In other words, how are you going to get people in the door to pay attention to these topics? It all comes down to the advertising and the ease of attracting people.

Make it as easy as possible to attend. Examine the schedules of people that you view as likely to attend such events if they’re free and plan accordingly. One good time to have an hour-long seminar/workshop is around lunch time, where it can be scheduled as a brown bag lunch. Another accessible time is in the early evening.

Also, you should not restrict people from attending. It is fine to have a “carrot” in place to encourage people to come back, but don’t create a situation that keeps people from attending or “punishes” people who miss a session or two. The best way to do this is to make each topic stand completely on its own, with as little reliance as possible on other topics.

Give a very obvious “hook” to get people in the door. If you’re teaching personal finance topics, the best way to do this is to directly translate the topic you’re going to present into dollars and cents. Find a way to make your lesson as tangible as possible, figure out how much money this will save people, then use that as part of the salesmanship of the session.

One great example: let’s say you’ve decided to do a session on reducing one’s utility bills. Your “hook” could be to provide everyone who attends a CFL light bulb that they can take home and install (for some more thoughts on how to make this work, see below). Then, when you advertise, you can directly state that this session includes a giveaway that will reduce their energy bill by $30. Make that the attention getter in any promotion that you do.

Make sure as many people know about it as possible. Once you’ve got that key attention getter, broadcast the news of this session as far and wide as you can, using that hook as the lead. Send out emails to any mailing lists you have saying “Want $30 more in your pocket? Attend ….” Make flyers leading with that idea. Make it very clear that anyone can attend, and include the time and location (and maybe even a map, if that’s necessary) on the flyers and emails.

Keeping Their Attention
Once you’ve got these people in the door, what can you do to keep their attention?

Make everything you say as tangible as possible. Everything you speak of should be as applicable as possible to as many people in the room as possible. Let’s say you’re doing a session on how to maximize your food dollars. Instead of speaking in intangibles, break out your own receipts and coupons. Go through the whole thing step by step – reading flyers, clipping coupons, making a meal plan, creating a shopping list – and actually do it instead of talking about it. As you’re going along, focus on meals and items that the people in the room might actually buy. Focus on simple meals that they might actually prepare at home.

Get them involved. The more audience interaction, the better. For the food lesson, ask people in the room what they’re going to have for supper tonight. Get several ideas, then use that as the basis for constructing a meal plan. When using the flyer, pick out a few foods from the flyer, then get people in the audience to name dishes they like that use hamburger (or whatever you discover in the flyer). For other sessions, convince people to bring in bill statements, credit cards, and other things that they’re willing to share. Bring in your own, too.

Focus on the big points, not the minutiae. Reduce each point you’re trying to make to as few words as possible. The rest of your talking should be focused on tangible examples. When you get lost in the minutiae of the larger points you’re trying to make, you lose the people in the crowd, too.

Sending the Message Home
You got them there, you got them interested while they were in the room, but now they’re about to leave. What can you do to make sure that they take the idea home with them.

Make sure they can take something home that encourages action. A simple bullet list of five or so direct actions they can take from the class can be incredibly useful. Don’t make it overly complex – just give enough so that they can actually do it on their own, no more. If a page is too filled with words, busy people will overlook it. If you feel the need to include lots of words, use brief headers to make sure the main five (or so) points are very clear.

Get sponsors. Another clever technique to make the class tangible is to give away something to each attendee (or to each person that participates). Of course, a good giveaway has costs. The best way to mitigate those costs is to seek out a local sponsor.

Remember the example above of giving out CFL bulbs? Try contacting the management at your local Home Depot or Lowe’s or local hardware store. Explain to them that you’re doing a class on how to save energy and suggest that they donate a number of individually packaged CFLs to the class. To each one, they could attach a small flyer for the store that also works as a dollar-off coupon on another CFL. For them, this is a great advertising promotion, as you’ll be explaining to the audience how they can save money with these bulbs and their business name will be attached right to it. For you, it’s a great way to obtain something to hand out that also serves as a tangible reminder of the lessons from the class.

Remember, personal finance is a topic that many people find tedious – or they simply don’t want to hear about it at all. The best way to overcome that is to make it appear quite easy to apply personal finance tactics in their lives – and there are a lot of subtle ways to do just that.

How do you feel about this, readers? Is this the type of event that would be interesting to you? Would you be excited if something like this appeared in your community?

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  1. George says:

    Great suggestions!

    But, Trent, can lay off the CFL example? I swear you bring it up in every other post and it’s getting very, very tired.

  2. Baker @ ManVsDebt says:

    Great tips. It’s often way easier to align free sponsors than you might think. I definitely suggest going this route!

    P.S. – I don’t mind the CFL example.

  3. I’d really enjoy having something like this at our campus. I would definately attend, though I think that all of your readers here (since we are interested in personal finance) would attend.

    I think the biggest challenge is to get college age students interested in being financially responsible. It is too bad that something like this isn’t a required course in highschool. That would make more sense, in my opinion. You would reach a broader audience, and have the power to make it required.

    Oh well, this is still a step in the right direction.

  4. Jerryb says:

    I would suggest making the first class mandatory for any first year student receiving financial aid. In that class they can explain the value of being financially educated as well as the pit falls of excessive debt.
    Financial Literacy is the one area I whole heartedly agree with Robert Kiyosaki on.

  5. Jules says:

    Really good advice.

    Maybe include an optional class on how to cook cheap, healthy, delicious meals, too (with samples, of course!)? I mean, mac ‘n cheese is cheap, and maybe even delicious, but it’s definitely not something you should be eating five days a week, even if you make it with whole-wheat pasta. From what I know about food deserts (my experience, though, is with inner-city environments) the search for cheap healthy produce can be frustrating.

  6. Shevy says:

    Giveaways are obviously a good idea for college students. After all, the credit card companies have been signing them up for years with free tshirts, frisbees and the like!

    How about a once a week, community kitchen? While I haven’t been involved in their creation myself, one organization in my community has set up a number of them for different populations (including for people with special needs).

    You could teach the skills (flyers, coupons, meal planning, etc.) during the first part of the session (planning for the next week’s cooking) and the second half could be actually cooking together to create healthy, low-cost meals.

    Again, local companies might contribute food (day old bread, or organic veggies that are still okay but need to be used right away for example) and national companies might contribute less perishable items (like powdered milk or pasta, packaged with coupons).

    You might have to charge a small amount for other foods, but if someone could pay $5 or less and walk out a couple of hours later with a hot meal in their stomach, plus packaged food for the next couple of days that they had prepared themselves it would probably be very successful. Plus, it’s a very social experience.

  7. Kris says:

    I disagree that a full course wouldn’t attract a huge response at a community college. You must keep in mind that community colleges have people who take classes for various reasons, not just the 20 year old waiting to get into a 4 year college.

    Given that “Maggie” is in what she describes as a very poor area where people often can’t afford to pay back their student loans, I would think a full class would be quite beneficial as many of these students probably did not learn anything at all about finances growing up.

    In fact, I would like to see a semester of Financial Literacy required of anyone who takes out a student loan in any college.

  8. Hogan says:

    Financial literacy only goes so far. Companies will always go after the easy money. Never in the history of mankind have so many people been sitting on so much equity in their homes with so little financial sophistication. Usually it takes financial sophistication to accumulate wealth, home equity just plopped down out of the sky on ordinary long term homeowners. Unfortunately for all of us it takes financial sophistication to hold on to wealth too. Mortagage brokers backed by the hedge fund hegemony took it upon themselves to extricate that wealth out of these unsuspecting homeowners. So yes financial literacy is important but fiancial regulation of people who have nothing to offer but a high and hidden fees need to be regulated too.

  9. M says:

    I’ve always felt these kinds of “life” courses should be mandatory to graduate High School. If they understand money, what things cost, what you will get after taxes, etc maybe they wouldn’t have this problem when they get to college.

  10. Johanna says:

    What about guest lectures in classes that the students are taking anyway, or working financial lessons into other subjects? When I was in 10th grade, I remember my history teacher going off on a big long tangent about how easy it is to get in trouble with credit cards if you use them to buy stuff you can’t really afford. I don’t remember what that had to do with history (maybe he was talking about a government going into debt or something) but the financial lesson stuck with me. Maybe a math class could include a lesson on how loans and interest rates work, or a computer-skills course could include a lesson on how to manage a budget using a spreadsheet or something.

  11. Beverly says:

    You have to understand that not everyone who ends up at a community college even attended high school. If they went to an alternative school or got their GED in jail, they can take other classes at the community college until they can take courses for credit. These are people literally trying to pull themselves out of the mire of poverty and illiteracy. I like Johanna’s idea of incorporating the message in various course work but that takes a concerted effort systemwide. I really like Kris’s idea that if you take out a student loan you have to take the course.

  12. Stephan F- says:

    Actually a full course would be great but I don’t think it should be limited to just basic financial literacy.

    While I got a 4 year degree I know I would have preferred a good class on financial literacy rather then the macroeconomics course that I was required to take for general education requirements.

    My Dad did a good job teaching me how to use checking and savings account and even a credit card.
    Also things like how to negotiate pay and benefits and worker’s rights.
    The differences of stocks, bonds and Roth IRAs, 401(K)s and the like.

    Right now, I would have preferred something that touched on some of the history and major people & theories of economics:Adam Smith, Marx, von Mises, and Keynes. and how they fit into the current political environment.

    And how to set up and run a side business. I bet a lot of those people will end up with some kind of business even it it is just girl scout cookies once a year.

  13. *sara* says:

    oooh, great idea! I want to come to your class!

  14. This is an excellent post, and the logic really applies to any subject that is taught in schools and colleges.
    Let’s face it, most people don’t find school particularly engaging. I always thought that if someone could make the history syllabus into a rap song people’s results might be much better!

    Anyway, I’ve been developing my own method for teaching investing literacy – Texas Holdem Investing – and I think it ticks alot of the boxes that Trent mentions in this post.
    I thought it would be a good exercise to go through the Texas Holdem Investing concept through the lense of this article:

    Getting People’s Attention
    Poker is a pasttime that lots of people know about and enjoy. I think it is attention grabbing to show people how this pasttime can help teach the concepts of good investing.
    The hook is showing people that playing poker can help teach investing. On the issue of letting lots of people knowing about it, well I’m trying to spread the gospel on my site!

    Keeping their Attention
    Poker by itself has the ability to keep the attention of those playing so this does solve the problem to a certain degree.
    By eventually getting people to put their money at risk it makes the interaction of the player very tangible, particularly when losses are suffered.
    Texas Holdem Investing gets the people learning to invest involved through playing poker and putting money at risk rather than reading books and looking at charts.
    And focussing on the big points of investing is one of the key elements of Texas Holdem Investing. Learning to invest through playing poker focusses on the big point of mastering your emotional skills in the environment of putting money at risk. This is one of the major elements of learning to invest effectively.

    Sending the Message Home
    Texas Holdem Investing gives the students the ability to take home poker as a method of continuously learning and improving.

    I hope that Trent and the other readers can take some time to think about my approach to making teaching investing a little more exciting!

  15. Jamie says:

    Maggie,

    I am not sure if you have course materials for your classes or not, but there are some great resources available at http://www.yourmoneycounts.com. The site is sponsored by HSBC, a large bank. The material there, though, is general in nature and does NOT promote the bank. There are several topics from which to choose. You have to register as an educator, but it is free and the materials are very well written.

    Good luck with your undertaking!

    Jamie

  16. @George – CFLs are AWESOME!!!

    @Trent – financial literacy comes through stages with the first being awareness. With all of the new and free personal finance sites out there, the first step I’d take is walking a room full of students through a site like Mint, Thrive, etc. so they can have a place to view all of their money/debt. These sites aren’t where I want them to be yet, but over time, they will develop into a kind of literacy on demand solution. In talking with Thrive’s founders, I think they might be a best fit for ‘Maggie’ as they are focused on fighting poverty and their web app is a little further along than Mint or Wesabe in the personal financial planning realm.

  17. Jade says:

    The thing that really brought people to any event when I was in college can be summed up with two words: free food, or a variation of this: free pizza. Unfortunately I usually found, especially in community college, that people showed up for the food and ignored the rest of the event, so that might not be the greatest idea…

    A semester long course in financial literacy should be required, but I also don’t think we should neglect basic micro and macro econ courses. You don’t have to study a lot of econ to see what was going on with the housing bubble and that banking on home equity wasn’t such a bright idea…

  18. I think college students should be required to take a financial literacy course (maybe instead of some of the other crap they are required to take). I teach managerial accounting and most of my students were shocked to hear that I had a budget for Christmas gifts and saved the money all year long so I could pay cash for those gifts. Only one of my 65+ students last semester had ever heard of a Christmas club.

    I also think that when provided with the option, lots of college students would take a course like that. I have a lot of students interested in learning more about personal finance and career stuff but we just don’t have time to cover it in my class.

  19. GayleRN says:

    Ummm I hate to point out the obvious Trent, but they could base a class on your downloadable free book,Everything you ever really needed to know about personal finance on just one page. That’s what I would do.

  20. Terri says:

    A very popular program in colleges/universities across the country that ‘Maggie’ should check out is the “First Year Experience (FYE)”. It goes by different names at different universities–for example, the one that I taught was called “Gateway to College”. It’s usually run by the Freshman Programs office and although not required, is highly recommended to incoming freshman. Why? Simply put, it reduces dropouts. While there are other life-skills topics included in the courses (like how to prepare for a career in a chosen field), financial literacy is one of them. At the university where I was, a very popular seminar included in the course was on revolving credit. So many students didn’t understand how signing up for a credit card in exchange for a free t-shirt, could end up ruining their credit.

    There are grants available for programs like these, so ‘Maggie’ could most likely get some additional funding to provide freebies for the students.

    Best of luck to Maggie–it’s a very good thing that she’s doing.

    -Terri
    saltedpeanutmail@yahoo.com

  21. She should think about videotaping the sessions and post the videos on the school’s website and/or YouTube. That way if anyone misses a lecture, it can be easily caught up.

    Also, consider making a site on the school’s website to tie everything together. Maybe make it like a wiki so they can have an ongoing conversation about topics, encourage each other, etc.

    And I also like the idea of using your book in the course. :)

  22. Charlotte says:

    Food: Free food or food for a minimal charge gets me to events — even though I’m now retired and financially comfortable.

    Goody Bags: Get sponsors for goody bags that contain products that clearly identify the store and have the sponsors agree to honor money-off coupons.

    Door Prizes: Give out tickets for the next event for nice door prizes from the sponsors, requiring people to be present to win.

    Teaching Materials: Trent’s book is a good start — and free — but I’d also include material from “The Millionaire Next Door.” The book teaches good ways of how living below one’s means is key and that the flashy car, big house, and material possessions don’t necessarily show who has what. Odds are that they have seen “the American dream” only on TV and don’t know that it is within his/her grasp — but not from get-rich-quick schemes.

    And again — food.

  23. Margaret says:

    You know that chart that shows an 18 yr old who invests $100 a month for ten years will end up with more money than a 28 year old who starts invested $100 a month for the rest of his life? Use something like that as a hook — “Joe is 28 and in his life he invests $45000 into his RRSP. He ends up with $200,000. Jane is 18 and in her life invests $12000 into her RRSP. She ends up with $500,000. Come to our seminar and find out WHY!”

    If you develop a series of workshops/lectures, can you offer it twice — a fall run and a spring run? If you are going to do lectures, can you make the PROFESSORS announce it in each of their classes at the beginning of the semester?

    Comment 9 — I bet your teacher was dealing with credit card debt and he was hoping to help you. If you have ever been in big debt, I bet you want to tell young people “DON’T FALL INTO THE TRAP!”

  24. Andrea says:

    I teach adults returning to college, many of them single parents and low-income, and I think your recommendations are spot-on. Most students will not add to their tuition bill taking what they view as unnecessary classes. They are trying to complete their degrees in as few semesters as possible, and most enter college with the goal of “having that piece of paper.” If Maggie’s students are anything like mine, they are products of a poor school system that taught them by rote, and never awoke in them any kind of intellectual curiosity–if anything, their schooling has stifled it.

    Making workshops practical is important. I would be careful of the “$30 in your pocket” argument, however–make clear that there will be a slight reduction in every month’s bill worth $30 overall, not a $30 drop in every month’s bill. Other than that, being practical and hands-on is a VERY good tactic; add on things such as “how you can do this and still work full time AND handle your kids AND go to school”–mix active and passive savings, and always acknowledge your students’ situations and their expertise.

  25. Beverly says:

    I had another reply earlier that somehow didn’t get posted. You all have really missed the boat in terms of who the students here are. These are not middle class achievers who come from families where Dad is able to teach how money is made and where it goes. They come from poverty, they have GEDs, and they have no role models for success, financial or otherwise. You have to take a different approach in terms of content here. But I absolutely agree that a course like this should be mandatory for anyone who take out a student loan.

  26. ub says:

    @Jade
    I whole-heartedly agree. I attended sooo many stupid seminars/meetings for things I was barely even remotely interested in (and ended up doing one of them 30 hours a week for 4 years of college) based solely on the promise of free pizza.

    Make it free beer and you’ll have more demand than you’ll know what to do with.

  27. Bill in Houston says:

    This isn’t bad at all. I do like the idea of incentives to get the kids in there. Use the same tactics the credit card companies do. Instead of the ubiquitous frisbee or a t-shirt how about a cheap little three dollar solar calculator?

    If this is a class, many of Trent’s suggestions will help to keep their attention. Yes, do get them involved.

    I also like Charlotte’s idea of using examples from the Millionaire Next Door. The problem with college kids today is that they’re very impressionable. Limbaugh calls them “young skulls full of mush.” (Political comments aside, please.) It is an apt description. Compare to 100 years ago when their great grandparents were marrying, raising families, working on the farm or in a factory and lacked the diversion of today’s society. Students see the bling and the lifestyles of sports figures and fall into that trap early. It continues on as they get older and have to get the nicer car, bigger house, and the trappings of wealth without the means to maintain it. Showing that living a more frugal lifestyle can lead to financial happiness can lead to happier persons in the future.

    Also, if this is a class and not just a seminar, giving the students “life projects” will impress some of the ideas of financial responsibility into them. Try things like, “How much did dinner cost” or “How much does this car cost to operate” or “Is this phone worth it” projects. Use worksheets and examples in it to get them motivated to do it on their own.

    After living a lifestyle of at or above my means for a lot of 48 years, it took a good size jolt to get me serious about financial freedom and true happiness.

  28. Charlotte says:

    Have a one-time seminar with free food. Give a broad introduction to the idea of handling money. Have those who are interested sign up for a short series of classes. Keep it basic with daily living information. From that group, give another short series on something more indepth. For a group that is primarily from low-income families, investing may be way past their point of reference. You’ve got to start at their level. Otherwise, it will be like trying to teach someone to make a souffle when they can’t even boil water yet.

    Also, ask the students what they want and how much time they can afford for extra classes. They may have school and jobs and families. No matter how much they would like to attend long classes, they might not be able to do so. Do a short survey in several classes to find the best way to proceed.

  29. Tammy says:

    My son just completed a Personal Finance class at the community college he attends in Texas. I required that he take the course and I paid for the class.

    He learned a lot!

  30. Patrick says:

    One other idea about CFL lightbulbs – in many towns the local electric utility will donate these and/or help sponsor something like this (particularly if your utility is a Co-op), the less energy they have to provide for you is less they have to generate/purchase on the market.

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