Financial literacy programs can be challenging to create. Many undergraduates don’t know what they don’t know, and what they do know is often incomplete or misinformed. That being said, teaching financial basics doesn’t need to be intimidating or boring.

We found that students learn the most when we related financial literacy to their personal situations.

I helped create the financial literacy program at a SUNY (the State University of New York) with approximately 6,500 students, and during a 2015 presentation that my team and I made to young leaders, we asked 50 undergraduates to help create their own story in order to teach them the basics of post-graduation financials.

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The exercise was designed to be very low-tech so that we could make eye contact with the students, work the room, and engage them as much as possible. Together, we created a story of a student who had just graduated from college and started her first professional job. The story followed the student through receiving her paycheck and paying bills that all independent young professionals would pay.

The students did not have a copy of the story, and they were not given advance warning of the subject matter. Students were immediately engaged and excited about the narrative that was being created. We stressed that no answer was wrong, and in the end, we had many different stories of post-graduation finances.

After reading through the completed story – and then reading it again with serious and factual answers for each field – it was clear that no one size of financial literacy program would fit all students.

Here are some of the takeaways from that program:

  • Those 50 students had a general knowledge of what their student loan debt would be, but could not translate that in to what their monthly repayment amount would be. Furthermore, most students were under the assumption that their salary would be enough to cover their student loan payment.
  • They were lost when it came to taxes. So we made sure to include tax information in all of our future programs, so that our students knew what a $36,000 salary meant in take-home income.
  • Housing costs usually amounted to, “If I need to, I’ll get roommates,” or, “I’ll live with my parents.”

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The results of the financial literacy exercise

What was most surprising to us was the number of questions about credit cards, credit ratings, and retailer credit cards this exercise brought up.

Many students wanted to start building their credit and were unsure of how to go about doing it. To address this, we brought in local experts and relied upon existing resources to ensure that the students were receiving a consistent message.

Overall, this program helped us as much as it helped our students. Based on their answers, we were able to gauge how serious financial literacy was to our undergraduates and gain insight into which topics needed further teaching. These 50 student leaders knew enough to not rush out and overspend after they landed their first job, but most didn’t know how to budget for food and a social life outside of a college town.

Their needs varied widely, and as a result, we found that programming that put as many students as possible in face-to-face interactions with staff members was the most valuable.

Today’s students need to speak with a person they can relate to. Despite having a wealth of financial information in the palm of their hands, students want to hear it from someone who is looking out for them and who has had similar experiences.

We found that students learn the most when we related financial literacy to their personal situations. Asking 50 students to fill in the blanks helped us learn about their needs and enabled them to write their own story.

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Erik Andersen is the Bursar and Director of Student Accounts at Stony Brook University.