Financial lessons from Big Mama

Michelle Singletary
Columnist May 8, 2012

On my first day as a full-time journalist, I called my grandmother Big Mama to tell her what it was like.

My grand­-mother, who was determined to raise me to be a good money manager, didn’t want to hear about the fire I was sent to cover — not yet anyway. Instead, she cut me off, asking if I had gone to the benefits office to arrange for some of my pay to be automatically sent to a savings account, preferably to a credit union. I hadn’t.

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.” View Archive

“Hang up and call me back when you have, and then tell me about your day,” Big Mama said.

I did as I was told. And ever since, I have followed that piece of advice, making sure that part of my pay — from every paycheck — is diverted to a savings account and later, when my employer began offering a 401(k), to an account for retirement.

But what if you don’t have a Big Mama to give you the basic financial advice that could save you a lot of financial grief?

With traditional pensions becoming rare and the constant worry about the status of Social Security, workers have to save for themselves. But many don’t, partly because they don’t know how. They don’t understand the importance of putting money into a retirement plan or, if they do, they aren’t really sure how their money is invested.

There is a lot of debate about the best way to get more employees to participate in workplace saving and investing programs. There’s also the question of whom workers can turn to for advice.

The Investor Protection Institute, with support from the Investor Protection Trust, says it can provide just the right workplace education program for about $35 per person. The institute has created a nine-part, 10-hour online education series that covers topics such as saving and investing, understanding investment risks and working with financial advisers.

The institute is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to support, conduct and create unbiased investor education programs. Its new workplace program began as a pilot with thousands of credit union employees and educators in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and North Carolina with the help of state securities agencies and the National Credit Union Foundation.

“There is so much more burden on individuals to manage their own finances, and many of them are ill-prepared and pressed for time,” said Don Blandin, Investor Protection Trust president and chief executive. “With this program, people don’t have to get in the car on a busy night to go to a class. You can do it on your schedule. And it’s for the person who knows nothing, up to the seasoned investor.”

After initial testing in three states, the workplace program is expanding to Alaska, Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Oklahoma, Vermont, Washington and the District of Columbia.

Lois Kitsch, national program director for the National Credit Union Foundation, said she’s a great example of how the program works.

“I’ve worked in financial services for years and I had no idea where to start,” Kitsch said. “It’s not that I didn’t know I was supposed to do it, I just never got around to the action of doing it. Then and all of a sudden I’m 61 and I have to do it. The investor education program gets people to think about retirement at an earlier age and helps people like me who haven’t thought about it.”

Participating employees take a pre-test and survey to determine their baseline of knowledge, Blandin said. They also complete a post-test and survey to measure what they’ve learned and, most importantly, whether they changed their behavior.

The testing found statistically significant improvements in employees’ investment knowledge, their establishment of goals and budgets and an increase in their contributions to retirement plans, according to research by J. Michael Collins, an assistant professor and director of the Center for Financial Security at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

“I’ve looked at financial education through a variety of settings, and providing it in the workplace is one of the best ways,” Collins said.

Financial education programs in the workplace make sense because that’s where people earn their money and where they can take immediate action to change their financial behavior, he said. For example, after going through a course on saving and investing, employees might be motivated enough to go to the human resources office and make arrangements to start saving or complete the paperwork to put money in a retirement account.

For more information about the workplace financial program, go to www.investoreducation
inyourworkplace.org
.

Ask your employer about providing the online courses, especially if you can’t count on a Big Mama to lead you in the right direction.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or singletarym@washpost.com. Personal responses may not be possible, and comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to postbusiness.com .

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