Celebrating Youth Financial Literacy

(From CUNA News) – Personal finance education became mandatory in 2019 for all Maine students grades K-12. Less than a year later, the coronavirus pandemic emptied the halls of many of those schools.

Community CU in Lewiston, Maine, and the Maine Credit Union League adjusted their financial literacy offerings, earning 2021 Desjardins Youth Awards in the process. The awards, named after credit union pioneer Alphonse Desjardins, honor credit unions, leagues, and chapters, for their commitment to youth and adult financial literacy.

Financial literacy is the essence of Community CU and the credit union movement, says Jen Hogan, CEO at the $88 million asset credit union.

“We have an obligation to empower people to succeed,” she says. “Financial literacy is our credit union Kool-Aid. We drink it every day, and we drink a lot of it.”

Successful financial education involves more than posting tips on a website. It requires working side by side to help members, nonmembers, and employees better their lives.

“We’re simply trying to do right by our communities,” Maine Credit Union League Financial Literacy Outreach Coordinator Jake Holmes says. “Financial education is empowering. It helps people gain confidence, improve their relationships, avoid debt, and achieve their goals. Our members’ success is our mission.”

National Credit Union Youth Month in April allows credit union leaders to spotlight what they do year-round to educate youth about budgeting, saving, investing, and other financial literacy topics.

“Our kids are our future, and if we don’t start educating them now, we’re going to be in big trouble,” Hogan says. “The earlier they’re educated, the better off they’ll be. Having that financial background is crucial.”

“Financial wellness is a major contributing factor to one’s overall well-being,” Holmes agrees. “Without early financial education, kids may become adults who fall into financial traps without even knowing it. Poor personal finance decisions can take decades, even a lifetime to fix.”

Hogan and Holmes, like many others, speak from experience.  Hogan remembers making mistakes with her first credit card because she never learned better, and Holmes says he was a first-generation college student who never learned about interest rates before taking out private student loans at 11%.

“It wasn’t out of the ordinary for a graduating senior to have never sat down in a classroom setting entirely dedicated to financial wellness,” says Holmes. “Fortunately, that’s no longer the case for students in Maine.  Credit unions are doing what we can to help schools meet that mandate.”

Community CU, for instance, works with Junior Achievement, a nonprofit focused on empowering economic education. Credit union staff speak directly to kids, with local elementary school students traditionally taking field trips to tour its Auburn branch.

It also teaches kids how to write a check, balance a checkbook, and track their finances.

When the pandemic hit, Community CU uploaded recorded financial education lessons to YouTube. Schools received access to the lessons, which are based on the FDIC’s Money Smart curriculum.

The Maine Credit Union League approaches financial education similarly. Its youth education relies on lessons being light, conversational, and fun, Holmes says.

“I try not to just stand in front of them and present my lesson,” he says. “I try to turn what I’m teaching them into a conversation about wants and needs. I can respond and educate them through conversation, which is way more likely to be absorbed than something on a PowerPoint slide.”

Holmes also mixes in hands-on activities like word searches, crossword puzzles, and blank pages on which kids can draw what they want to save money for. He believes that level of interaction is more likely to stick with young age groups.

Hogan has seen this firsthand as her sixth-grade daughter and has gone through Community CU’s programs.

“She came home talking about it and her friends were talking about it,” Hogan says. “It’s unique how this has opened up conversations in different ways.”