Money talks

Service teaches money management, works to erase debt stigma

A financial success program has made progress in bringing financial literacy to campus, but social stigma and a lack of awareness continue to cause money management issues among students.

Comet Cents began as a way to meet the requirements dictated by Texas’ House Bill 399, which was passed in 2011. It amended the Education Code to require an institution of higher education in Texas to start offering training in personal financial literacy, no later than the fall semester of 2013.

Michael Saenz, the assistant director of the Student Success Center, in which Comet Cents is housed, said the law was put in place to prevent credit card companies from preying on college students who didn’t understand the ins and outs of money management.

“When I was going through school, there (wasn’t a program like this),” he said. “No one (knew) what (they) were doing. You just hear from a friend, ‘Oh yeah, they give you money if you do this.’ … Little (did) you know you have to pay all that money back times five. They put in these laws to protect the consumer.”

Comet Cents, which opened in 2013, hosts workshops that have experienced a high turnout, with 40 to 50 percent of attendees going to multiple events among the 400 to 500 unique individuals that came to the center’s programs in fall 2015 and spring 2016, but these workshops weren’t a part of the starting agenda.

“The original plan of Comet Cents was to (offer) … pure financial coaches, so students would come in, pretty much on their own accord and say, ‘I have this problem. I want to make a budget’ and we would help them,” said Thomas Gorman, an accounting senior and student coordinator at Comet Cents. “But we had to change (the) game plan a lot because that wasn’t really happening.”

Jason Harris, a finance senior and another student coordinator, said part of the reason for the low turnout of students seeking financial help on a one-on-one basis was due to the stigma attached to discussing money matters.

“I kind of get a feeling that some people that may be struggling don’t want to come in and talk about it,” he said. “If we can find a way to break through that barrier and get them to come in and just open up, discuss one-on-one, we’d probably find out a little bit more.”

Gorman said he tries to combat the prejudice by openly discussing his own finances.

“We try to use personal examples a lot,” he said. “I’m pretty transparent with my finances and my situation, and I’ll talk about where my wife and I are at.”

Saenz pointed out approaching someone of the same age about monetary issues is more effective for college students than seeking professional help.

“It’s hard to ask for help, especially in college,” Saenz said. “You feel like you should know the answers by now. I think that’s where peer education works, because it’s a lot easier to go talk to a fellow student that has been there before.”

Gorman attributed the low number of students wanting one-on-one financial coaching to a tendency to ignore the topic of money.

“A lot of people push it under the rug too,” he said. “(They say), ‘I’ll worry about it when I graduate’ or something.”

They explained that incoming students have different “money personalities,” which dictate how they view financial matters.

Gorman said non-traditional students who come to college after working and saving up for their education are more skilled at maintaining healthy finances, whereas Harris pointed out high school graduates aren’t as prepared.

“But then you also have other students who come in as freshmen (because) it’s just the next step after high school,” Harris said. “They don’t really consider the money aspect of it.”

This year, Comet Cents was able to help seven students on a one-on-one basis, usually in preparing a budget.

“They just kind of decided, ‘Well, I need a budget’ so they just kind of made one,” Gorman said. “They didn’t really have anything to work from, no one told them to do it. So they didn’t know if what they were doing was right. They wanted to make sure they were going to be safe for the future.”

But, he also said, there have been a few students who were having trouble managing credit card debt.

“The thing with credit card debt is … you just swipe (the card) and you get whatever you want,” Harris said. “(It’s) mostly just mental. (People) don’t think about the money they’re spending.”

Gorman said that one student was able to pay off the debt on several credit cards by adapting a mindset of planning and sticking to a budget with the help of a student-worker at Comet Cents.

“She’d actually made a lot of progress in paying that off,” he said. “I mean, this was in half a semester, so it was really neat to see that the plan that they’d originally made, (she’d) stuck to it and was almost out of debt.”

During the school year, they host one workshop every week, with topics such as creating a budget, reading and analyzing a credit report, calculating and improving credit scores, repaying student loans, eating healthy on a budget and finding cheap textbooks.

Saenz said a big focus moving into the next school year is to not only teach what one can do now to manage money better, but also to show what students can do to set themselves up for success in the future.

“Even now after two semesters of being active, trying to be promotional and having weekly events, it’s still been tough to get campus awareness, but we’ve definitely grown a lot,” Gorman said.

To help improve the program at UTD, Gorman and Harris visited the University of North Texas’ Student Money Management Center to get some guidance. UNT has established a set up with many student workers, five full-time employees and has integrated its program into the financial aid department.

Harris said that he was impressed by their efforts, but one thing about UNT’s program especially stood out to him.

“They started out kind of the way we started out, just small events here and there, just slowly starting to gain traction on the campus,” he said.

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