Breaking the cycle: Local groups teach vital career and finance skills to children and adults

Monday, June 21, 2010
Iris Mayhall, left, works with Beverly Cleair, a volunteer with Love INC's Managing Your Money program (Fred Lynch)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been corrected to reflect that the Junior Achievement program is not under the United Way umbrella.

Perhaps the best way to survive an economic meltdown is to go back to the basics of saving, budgeting and debt management. Many local groups offer financial literacy programs for people of all ages and income brackets.

"Everyone, no matter how good they are with numbers, can learn more about managing their pocketbooks," says John McGowan, director of community impact at United Way of Southeast Missouri. The organization sponsors or partners with a number of groups seeking to improve personal financial literacy, including Habitat for Humanity, which requires homeowners to complete a budget class, and Clearpoint Financial Solutions, a not-for-profit organization that teaches how to set a budget, balance a checkbook, pay bills and reduce credit card debt. Love INC (Love in the Name of Christ) mentors work one-on-one with people going through financial difficulties or addressing finances for the first time, and 4-Sight Counseling provides education and support to help people purchase or stay in their homes, avoiding foreclosure.

McGowan says finance, like parenting, is not an innate skill, but must be learned from others. Usually, financial difficulties often go hand-in-hand, such as with credit and housing troubles.

"It's also somewhat personal. People take financial missteps as a personal failure," says McGowan. He adds, "It's a vicious cycle of living beyond our means. We need to learn to make our money work for us, not just work for our money."

One way to do this is by teaching job and money skills to children. Junior Achievement is a worldwide program that reaches about 7,000 local students each year, says Merideth Pobst, coordinator of Junior Achievement in Southeast Missouri. Junior Achievement volunteers, including parents and local businesspeople, give basic business lessons to students in public and private schools, from kindergarten through 12th grade. Coin recognition, differing between needs and wants, savings and checking accounts and the local, national and global economies are just a few topics covered by Junior Achievement.

"It's great practice for kids to talk about budgeting. We give them the experience of having an income, even if it's just a pretend job for a day," says Pobst. The program also coordinates job shadow experiences for students.

Wendy Hayes, group banking/Seniors Club coordinator at Montgomery Bank in Cape Girardeau, has volunteered with Junior Achievement for about three years, along with several coworkers. She says Montgomery has offered children's savings programs for years, and she thought interacting with kids in schools would be a great way to take their financial education to the next level.

"In my profession of banking, we see so many people who come in struggling to reconcile their checkbooks. It's an important issue, and banking needs to be out there at a really early age," says Hayes. Even the youngest students pick up the information quickly and tell their parents about it, she says. In this way, the program ensures at least one person in the home knows how to make a budget and separate needs and wants, even if that person is the child, not the parent, says Pobst.

"I'm glad to work in an organization and environment that believes in that, encourages that, and gives us time away from the bank to do it," says Hayes. "If we could better educate people at an early age, it would be better for the whole community and the banking industry."

Eva Hillis, director of Love INC, believes many of today's financial troubles come from generational issues.

"Our clients may come from families that didn't handle their money well, or maybe they didn't have money to handle," she explains. "I keep seeing a rise in consumerism ... We have such a high standard of living and we think everyone lives like that." Love INC mentors help clients change this mindset, cut back on expenses, generate additional income, plan a budget and connect with other helpful resources. According to Hillis, the Managing Your Money program is not about continually helping people, but teaching them the tools to become financially stable on their own, regardless of their income levels.

Meanwhile, the Zonta Club of Cape Girardeau offers a financial literacy series based on Revitalizing your Economic Action Plan (REAP), a program offered by Redevelopment Opportunities for Women in St. Louis. Once trained, Zonta members lead other women through five sessions covering job preparation, understanding money, budgeting, credit, and banking and investments.

"The main goal of offering these sessions is to help women learn how to get a job and manage their money responsibly," says Jennifer Hendrickson, president of Zonta Club and Hendrickson Business Advisors in Cape Girardeau. Sessions are offered through the Family Counseling Center, where attendance is required as part drug and alcohol abuse treatment.

"We find that many women we train have never had a bank account, learned to make a budget or applied for a loan," says Hendrickson. "Unfortunately, many come from relationships where they were not allowed access to their own money. Some people use money to exert control over another person so money becomes power." Hendrickson says the women report feeling empowered and ready to take on the "real world" after completing the series, something that also fulfills Zonta's overall mission of advancing the status of women.

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