Don't Let Your Financial Literacy Efforts End When April Is Over

Originally published in the Credit Union Journal - These days, every month bears its own theme or flavor. You know many of them-October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month; February is Black History Month; May is National Pet Month. And as for flavors, well, don't get me started! July is National Ice Cream Month; September is National Honey Month. Alas, there is no National Chocolate Month (one of my favorite food groups). However, the National Confectioners Association has wisely designated several "candy holidays" dedicated to the glories of chocolate.

These monthly themes focus attention and awareness on a particular topic to raise our societal consciousness, knowledge and understanding. April is no exception. It is, after all, National Financial Literacy Month, a theme near and dear to the credit union system's heart.

At the National Credit Union Foundation our vision is to make financial freedom achievable through credit unions. Think about that for a moment. What would financial freedom really look like? We think it might look something like this: people have control over their financial decisions and money now and in the future. People have the ability to plan and to anticipate what's coming. And, people have options (e.g., they can save for retirement, send their kids to college and go on a restful vacation).

Are we close to that vision? No, not even remotely. Not when a 2012 survey of 25,000 American adults conducted by the FINRA Investor Education Foundation tells us that 19% spend more than they earn; 26% are living with unpaid medical debt; 56% have no rainy day fund (e.g., money to cover living expenses for three months); 59% have not tried to figure out their retirement savings needs; and millennials (born between 1978 and 1994) exhibit very low levels of financial literacy (e.g., only got 2.3 answers correct on a five-question financial literacy quiz).

These are our colleagues, our employees, our neighbors, our family, our friends. Moreover, not only are millennials the future of the credit union movement as borrowers and members, but they make up nearly a third of the population. And our mission, as a credit union community, is to serve members and help them improve their financial well-being.

Credit unions do amazing things to bring financial education and resources to their members. They hold high school reality fairs and retirement fairs. They have in-school branches. They use BizKid$ in their branches and buy boxed sets for their schools and local CMN hospital. They offer online and in person resources and classes on how to buy a car, a house, how to compare credit card rates and how to improve one's credit score. In most cases, this tremendous effort is done quietly without much fanfare because "It's what we do." Well, enough!

The Flavor Of This Month

April is National Financial Literacy Month and you need to be telling the world about all the amazing financial literacy work you do! Why? Because leveraging credit union's financial education outreach is an ideal way to build credit union awareness, reach potential members, lawmakers and the community. It's also a key way to let consumers know that credit unions are an option-the best option-to help them with their financial needs.

What else can you do? Track and document all of your efforts. The data is enormously useful to show to the press and lawmakers. Take a hard look at what you are doing. Are you just getting 'butts in seats' for seminars or are you measuring the impact of your work (e.g., improved credit score, eligibility for a lower rate loan, etc.)? Everyone, regardless of age or demographic, needs financial education resources for where they are in their financial lives. Are you meeting your members' diverse financial education needs in a way that is effective?

Need more ideas or help? Contact me or my staff at the National Credit Union Foundation or our colleagues at your local state credit union foundation. We're here to help you improve the financial lives of your members so that they can achieve financial freedom.

Yes, April is Financial Literacy Month. But helping members to achieve financial well-being? That's 24/7/365 the mission of credit unions, not just the flavor of the month. Keep up the great work!

Gigi Hyland is executive director of the National Credit Union Foundation and can be reached at ghyland@ncuf.coop.