In 2012, more than a million individuals filed for bankruptcy in the United States, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. And although myths abound as to why people declare bankruptcy — that it is the result of careless, reckless spending chief among them — the reality is more complicated. Even the most conscientious spenders can run into personal problems that wipe out savings and run up debt. And when that happens, it takes a knowledgeable consumer to figure out how to best navigate their finances.
Credit unions across the United States are working to educate members and communities about how to make wise financial decisions. From cartoon super heroes in elementary schools to investment counselors at retirement seminars, credit unions are gearing financial education to all stages of life. Credit unions’ interest in financial education is well founded: Providing financial education is one of the many public policy roles of credit unions.
Andrews Federal Credit Union ($943.5M, Suitland, MD) serves more 200 employer groups in Maryland and New Jersey and more than 100,000 members living in the Washington, DC, area or on one of several military bases in the United States,Germany, Belgium, and The Netherlands. As part of its mission to create life-long, financially successful partnerships, Andrews participates in several financial education efforts. Melissa Gardner is the community outreach coordinator for Andrews Federal Credit Union.
Tell me about the Maryland Financial Education & Capability Commission?
Melissa Gardner: The commission monitors public and private initiatives to improve the financial education and capabilities of Marylanders. It also recommends how state agencies can coordinate financial education and capability efforts. I applied and was appointed as the credit union representative to the commission. We’ve met once so far and will be meeting bi-monthly through the end of the year, when we’ll present a report to the state legislature on our findings.
Which financial issue(s) is the new commission tackling first?
MG: We’ve agreed to start with the student loan issue. We will keep an eye on what the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is putting out in that area, and each of us will provide our personal insights. In addition, we will bring in outside experts to help us understand what’s going on in student lending and how students and their families are affected. Andrews doesn’t offer student loans yet, but we will be in the next few months.
How did the commission decide to focus on student loans?
MG: An initial survey was sent to all commission members asking what topics most interested them. During our first meeting, we discussed the student loan issue at length. Everyone seemed interested in trying to provide solutions and discussing it further. It was definitely a collective decision and the sponsors of the commission were on board with the student loan focus.
We want to identify how we can help students and parents understand what they are getting into and what they are going to be paying when school is over so there are no surprises on the back-end. Families need to look at what is cost-effective, what makes sense financially when weighing college options.
How else do you think credit unions can partner with state agencies?
MG: We need to make financial education a requirement in high schools throughout the country. Even if we don’t talk to students in elementary or middle school, before they leave high school they need to understand the basics of finance so they are prepared for the real world. I believe we can accomplish this by using community resources so it’s not putting additional requirements on teachers. Local banks and credit unions can man those classrooms and answer those financial questions because it is our business. Financial education is something that should be top-of-mind for the entire country.
How else does Andrews get involved in the community?
MG: We’ve offered seminars and financial education opportunities since 2005. We offer financial education at our headquarters, on the military base we serve, and at various community organizations, churches, and schools. We also have an online education center and hand out financial “tips of the month” to members through our branches.
In addition to the financial education, we do community outreach and involvement through sponsorships. Many of these are with military organization on bases where we have branches. Other activities we sponsor include the Credit Union Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run and Angel Tree program with the Salvation Army.
Do you offer financial counseling or special products aimed at promoting financial capabilities?
MG: Yes, we offer the Balance program, which includes free financial counseling and free credit reviews. At all our seminars, I distribute flyers that promote the service and the financial tips members can find in our online education center.
We also offer a number of accounts to help establish credit. Our teen account has an optional, low-balance credit card that parents or guardians can use to help teach teens about credit. It also allows teens to open a checking account with a debit card with a parent as guarantor. Our share-secured Visa credit cards are also available for members with no credit or who are looking to rebuild their credit.
What are the benefits of your involvement on the Financial Education & Capability Commission?
MG: It is beneficial for Andrews Federal Credit Union, and the credit union industry as a whole, to gain more exposure. By building partnerships with state agencies, we have the opportunity to let them know about the financial education and community outreach credit unions already provide.
The more state leaders that know about the good work Andrews is doing, the better off the credit union and the citizens of Maryland are. We want state leaders to understand they don’t have to reinvent the wheel; they can partner with credit unions and banks to make sure existing educational resources reach more people. Consumers need access to financial services — especially safe, low-cost, or free financial services. Building credit union awareness in Maryland is going to be the primary benefit of serving on the commission.