Making Financial Literacy More Accessible

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.

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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?

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

1. 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.

2. 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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