Credit Unions Key to Boosting Financial Literacy
In 2009, I volunteered at a middle school and it opened my eyes to the giant financial literacy problem we have in America.
Working with Citizen Schools, I taught a class on entrepreneurship, and while my students were enthusiastic, they struggled with basic money issues. One day, while running a lemonade stand, one of my students had trouble making change at the cash register – even with the help of a calculator.
As I watched her grow increasingly frustrated, I wondered about the best ways to help kids – as well as adults – like her. I kept coming back to the same answer: Credit unions.
Credit unions have a long tradition of community involvement and possess staffers with deep knowledge of personal finance. As such, credit union leaders are perfectly poised to bring financial education to their local schools and neighborhoods.
Because, without a doubt, schools and parents could both use the help. A 2012 survey by Touchstone Research found that while 81% of parents feel it's their duty to teach their kids about money, fully 74% are reluctant to talk to them about finances. Additionally, 87% of parents think financial matters should be taught in school.
Yet, schools have their own problems. According to a survey by the National Endowment for Financial Education, fewer than 30% of teachers said they’ve taught financial topics to their students. Additionally, fewer than 20% feel competent in discussing personal finance with their students.
Some companies have attempted to bridge the financial literacy gap with technology. There are many apps available to help teachers and parents explain financial issues to their kids, often using fun, interactive games. It's a huge step in the right direction – but it's not enough.
To truly be effective, apps need to be combined with hands-on, human interaction. I always think of an experience I had several years ago when I first started working with credit unions and community banks. One institution's vice president kept me waiting 45 minutes past our meeting time, and when I sought out a reason for the delay, I found him in his office with an elderly woman. His desk was covered in receipts, and they were painstakingly going over this woman's finances.
The banker later explained to me that the woman was a customer who had overdrawn her accounts a few months ago, so he had been working with her, once a week, to help establish a budget and pay off her bills.
At the time, it was astounding to me, but it shouldn't have been. Since then, I’ve witnessed many examples of community financial institution leaders going above and beyond to help neighbors better manage their finances.
Community-minded credit union staffers have the skills and tools necessary to provide Americans with the financial literacy skills they need. Unfortunately, they increasingly don't have the time.
A harsh regulatory environment over the past few years has left many credit unions short on staff as well as money. Last year was the toughest regulatory year on record, according to the Banking Compliance Index.
More than 16,000 pages of new regulations were added to the books, and the average community bank had to spend an additional $150,000 and 3,411 hours last year just to keep up. The extra regulatory load required the average community bank to devote an additional 2.1 full-time employee equivalents to get the added work done. It's estimated that the total regulatory cost to the industry for the year was more than $1.1 billion.
To cope, many institutions have put their financial literacy efforts on the back burner, and that's detrimental to everyone. Reduced budgets and staffing mean many community financial institutions can't reach out to schools and help educate the next generation about simple personal finance tasks, like how to open a checking account or the importance of saving money.
Additionally, adults –like the elderly woman I watched receive help from the banker all those years ago – have fewer resources to turn to when dealing with financial matters both simple and complicated. What's more, for credit unions, the reduction in outreach removes one of the strongest competitive advantages local institutions possess against the big banks.
It's our hope that Congress will work to ease the regulatory burden going forward, freeing credit union leaders up once again to do what they do best: help their communities understand and master their finances.
Gabe Krajicek is CEO of BancVue in Austin, Texas. He can be reached at 877-342-2557 or gabriel.krajicek@BancVue.com.