Connecting Mentoring and Financial Literacy for Youth
Imagine handing out copies of your own credit card statement to a group of youth and asking them to analyze your expenses. At one mentor program in Texas, youth aging out of foster care enjoy an activity where they give budget feedback to the program coordinator, Erin Argue, based on her credit card use. Argue knows that youth transitioning from foster care are more at-risk for becoming homeless without the necessary financial and relationship supports in place. Youth Empowerment and Success (YES) Mentor Program, a component of Partnerships for Children in Austin, was created to meet this need by connecting mentoring and financial literacy.
“Financial literacy is about planting seeds. The skills do not happen overnight. We are setting them up with someone to keep having conversations with,” mentioned Argue. Real financial skills and quality relationships with mentors can set youth up for success, she added.
Ted Gonder, CEO of Moneythink, emphasized that taking financial skills from abstract concepts to engaging, applicable lessons takes time. "Financial skills are something that has to be internalized deeply in order to translate to behavior and be applied," he said. Using a peer model, mentors at Moneythink support disadvantaged youth around the country by using financial education to develop relationships built on trust.
Financial education is the pathway to mentorship at the YES Mentor Program. Youth between the ages of 15 and 17 join the program for a six-week schedule of financial literacy classes. The classes teach financial skills, such as budgeting and saving, and provide an opportunity to get to know potential mentors. The group classes, with a mix of 10 to 15 youth and 10 to 15 adult volunteer mentors, include icebreakers and other group activities. For example, mentors and youth visited a local credit union. For some youth, this was their first time in a bank; mentors helped them open accounts and deposit their first check.
At the end of the financial literacy course, Argue works with each youth to choose a mentor, based on shared interests and/or connections established during the class. The YES Mentor Program continues to facilitate these relationships, providing support and opportunities to connect. The program offers advanced financial literacy classes, and activities such as yoga, several times a month that mentors and mentees can take together.
“It’s an opportunity for youth and mentor to participate in a group-led activity and continue to get to know each other,” said Argue. Ideally the mentors become a trusted adult that youth can rely on, for financial advice and positive support as they transition into adulthood.
Moneythink trains college volunteers to provide financial mentoring to under-resourced youth in some of the most difficult schools in the country, said Gonder. They believe the youth they serve will relate more easily and connect better with a mentor who experienced a shared challenge, such as applying to college or for a job.
“We see under-resourced youth who’ve been through a lot. It’s hard to get and keep their attention and build their trust. Peer mentors have some degree of common experience”, Gonder added.
Peer mentors volunteer once a week at a partner school, teaching Moneythink’s 12-week financial curriculum. In small groups of 5 students per mentor, volunteers cover topics related to general financial skills, and career and college goals. Helping students plan and prepare financially for college is an important component of Moneythink. The mentors work closely with students on ways to apply for financial aid and budget for college expenses. To date, Moneythink has trained over 1,000 college volunteers and mentored over 7,000 youth.
Teaching Personalized Skills
In the beginning of the YES Mentor Program, Argue used a financial literacy curriculum but soon realized the topics were not applicable to youth. “The curriculum we were using was too general. The budget example asked the kids to budget for a $700 television. The examples and work needs to be specific to the youth’s experience.” She created a new custom curriculum, based on feedback and needs of youth in foster care.
In Texas, youth exiting foster care are eligible for a $5,000 voucher toward college or vocational programs. In one of the YES mentor-led classes, youth practice budgeting the money for and setting goals for housing and college. Mentors also conduct mock interviews, asking youth potential job interview questions, and helping youth practice their answers and making eye contact.
Moneythink also found standard financial education lessons irrelevant to the life circumstances of the youth they serve. Using a customized curriculum allows Moneythink to meet the individual needs of each 11th or 12th grader they teach. How to choose a college based on financing options is one example of the revised lessons. Navigating financial aid for college, Gonder mentioned, is usually not covered in a curriculum, yet is essential for the youth they serve.
Gonder recommended establishing a few baseline “rules of thumb” in any financial education lesson. Rules such as “think before you spend,” or in the YES Mentor Program, “is this a need or a want” give youth concrete tools to practice and use, whether they go on to college or a job.
Gonder and Argue both stressed that the most reliable metric of a mentor/mentee relationship is the amount of time spent together. Despite challenges in maintaining connections with youth who move out of the Austin area, Argue noted that mentees do stay in touch with their mentors. Mentees know they can always reach out to mentors, or to Argue herself, as they transition to adulthood.
Approximately 170 youth have participated in the YES Mentor Program so far, and there is no shortage of adult mentor volunteers interested in the program. To reach more youth outside of the classroom, Moneythink is developing a text-based technology program designed to provide financial mentoring.
Gonder said, “financial literacy could be the missing ingredient that guarantees success for youth.”