About 10 years ago, Vicki O’Neill’s children were in their teens and early 20s.
As they took on more and more adult responsibilities, she realized there was a need for them to get a formal introduction to handling finances. Yes, as CEO of ACMG Credit Union, Salvoy, N.Y., she had tried to pass on some financial basics. But she saw a demand for additional coaching.
O'Neill had already built a relationship with some of the teachers at the local high school, so she talked with them. She discovered they were eager to have outside speakers come in to discuss various aspects of financial literacy that could be integrated into the curriculum.
"I started doing that and enjoyed doing it. I have been working at a couple high schools and middle schools," O’Neill said.
"As I get later into my career, and I’m in my late 50s, I realize that as a credit union CEO, one of the most important things I can do is to try to get younger people who work for me involved in this so they can learn the ropes and realize how important it is."
About three years ago ACMG CU started a banking program at a local school. A couple young employees work with that effort. The ACMG marketing director has partnered with a representative from a community development credit union to teach financial literacy in economics classes. O’Neill sees it as a win-win situation because the community development CU staffer brings a lot to the table, and ACMG pays his salary.
Although more states are incorporating financial literacy into required classes, there is no mandate in New York state.
"There are components of it," O’Neill indicated. "I happen to chair the board of trustees of the New York Credit Union Foundation, and our focus there is certainly on financial literacy."
She indicated that many other state league foundations have also recognized that their main focus needs to be on financial literacy. Most of those foundations have a paid executive director who will advise credit unions on reaching out to local schools.
"There are a number of exciting programs," O’Neill stated. "We partner with Cooperative Extension at Cornell University. They did a great job putting together a matrix we use when we talk to teachers about incorporating financial literacy into their curriculum."
The experts at Cornell identified how financial literacy fulfills existing requirements. The idea is to help teachers realize this isn’t something eating up valuable time. Instead, they welcome it as helping meet mandates they already face and aiding their students.
In the middle schools, financial literacy typically fits into what has been called "home and careers" or "life skills and studies." Content often includes basics of budgeting and borrowing. High schools may incorporate financial literacy in economics classes.
"One of my frustrations when I talk to high school administrators is they figure financial literacy should be assigned to business classes. We’d love to be able to do both," O’Neill said.
There is ample material available to teachers, she added. The challenge for teachers is not so much finding curriculum content, because credit unions, Junior Achievement and many others can help with that. But teachers often don’t consider themselves knowledgeable on the subject, and don’t feel qualified to present the material.
As part of their sessions, the students learn that when a vendor or a company is selling a product, they want to make as much money as they can. That competes directly with what the consumer is trying to do–that is, pay the least possible amount for goods or services while still acquiring everything needed.
"It’s a hard concept for kids to grasp because I think most high school students are fairly naïve," O’Neill said. "They don’t understand yet they’ll be up-sold or sold things that aren’t necessarily in their best interests."
Has the tough economy prompted students to pay more attention to personal finances? Have they seen their own families struggling?
"Absolutely," O’Neill stated. "In the past couple years I’ve started asking, especially in the middle schools, if a family member, friend or neighbor has lost a job or had their hours cut back. A good half of the students raise their hands."
"What that means is they are, directly or indirectly, experiencing the fallout from not having the financial wherewithal to meet all the needs the family, friend or neighbor might have. They’re seeing it firsthand, and I think that has been very different over the past couple years.
"Even very smart students don’t necessarily make the connection between if I do a certain job this is realistically what I could make. Is that going to support the lifestyle I see for myself?"
O’Neill noted that when she was growing up, her parents tried to teach their children how to live within their means. But they never discussed how much money they made. Without that information, it’s very hard to understand budgeting and the choices parents must make.
She believes credit unions need to do a better job of making financial literacy a priority. It’s tempting to see classroom sessions as opportunities to sell credit unions. That’s not the idea. That shouldn’t be your motivation, O’Neill emphasized. You’re there to talk about financial literacy.
However, "I would make the case there’s a direct benefit to the credit union," she said. "If you can reach young adults who are members or potential members and help them become more financially literate and make better choices, your bottom line is going to be in much better shape. They will be making better decisions when they come to borrow and they will understand the importance of making payments on time.
"I would argue there will be direct benefit to you. It’s not just warm and fuzzy."