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Making Sense of Your Dollars

financial fluencySuch “life skills” do not generally fall within the purview of a traditional liberal-arts education. In another day, home economics courses in secondary schools taught elements of personal finance and household management. While weekly allowances or summer jobs can give young people rudimentary notions about money management, navigating personal finance issues has become far more complex. Witness the growth in the number of professional financial-planners, expected to increase by 37 percent in the decade between 2006 and 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Clearly, many of us feel we need help.

Providing basic financial information to women ignited the idea for Barnard’s Financial Fluency Program, which began to coalesce at the beginning of the millennium. An informal group of alumnae in finance who met occasionally for lunch or dinner explored ways to enhance financial savvy. They first directed their attention to students soon to leave the halls of academia; later the program would expand to inform and assist older alumnae. The Barnard program that emerged from these discussions is extraordinary in its comprehensiveness and because so much of the effort to establish the workshops, seminars, and special events came from volunteers—alumnae who used their expertise and gave their support to get the ball rolling. With its tag, Smart Women, Smart Money, Financial Fluency has become one of the most successful “beyond the classroom” initiatives at Barnard.

Trustee emerita Patricia Harrigan Nadosy ’68 was one of the alumnae instrumental in helping move the idea of practical financial learning forward, and ultimately would be a major force for implementing the alumnae courses. A French major with an MBA from Columbia who had worked at J.P. Morgan, Nadosy says, “We wanted to ease the transition from undergraduate life to that of the real world. We also wanted to help students prepare for a career in business and life in New York City.”

Laird Grant Groody ’67, a former trustee and concerned volunteer, had also made a career in finance. A Russian-area studies major, she entered the financial field through a position advertised by the Office of Career Development and spent most of her career at U.S. Trust. Initially, Groody was interested in promoting entrepreneurship to undergraduates. Finding entrepreneurial ideas ahead of the curve, she saw the need for more basic learning. With Groody’s support, Linda Reals ’92, an economics major, became manager of the Financial Fluency program for students in December 2003. She was “at home” in Career Development because, as Reals points out, the program was designed to help students and young alumnae with “life after college.”

One of Reals’ first priorities was to determine what exactly was needed. Various members of on-campus student-service offices—college activities, financial aid, the Furman Counseling Center, among them—reported an increasing number of questions from young adults grappling with finances and the reality of living on a budget in New York. Reals interviewed these staffers and also spoke with their counterparts at other peer institutions. She found one program at Smith, “Women and Financial Independence,” although others, like Wellesley and Mount Holyoke, were holding workshops on money topics.

The Barnard program would be unique. Reals’ curriculum separates into six workshops: basics of banking and budgets; investments and savings; credit management; protecting against identity theft; taxes; insurance; and finding affordable living space. Add-ons to the basic subject list have included such topics as having fun without going broke and evaluating a compensation package. The basics are offered twice a year, in spring and fall. Since its inception, more than 1,000 students have taken the Financial Fluency courses. Reals, who teaches all the student courses herself, has begun to tailor workshops for study-abroad students, those attending Barnard under the Higher Education Opportunity Program, and the commuter population as well. An adjunct program, “Careers in Finance,” offers students job-training with subjects like financial-statement evaluation and financial-statement modeling through Excel software. A student-orientation program for first-years deals with key topics such as managing credit cards, checking accounts, and identity theft.

Students who have taken the workshops appreciate the easy give-and-take along with the practical advice: “The program eased many anxieties about graduating—finding an apartment, examining job offers, budgeting for the next few years,” wrote one, while another noted, “it has reinforced the importance of consciously starting healthy financial habits early on.” As one older alumna notes somewhat wistfully below, students need to start early.

As interest in the student program accelerated, Nadosy and several other financially astute alumnae, through the office of Alumnae Affairs, initiated a program of mini-courses, lectures, and workshops to meet the needs of an older cohort of alumnae. Two of these women, Judith Boies ’59, a lawyer specializing in trusts and estates, and Camille Kelleher ’70, a former senior vice-president and portfolio manager at Brown Brothers Harriman & Co., helped spearhead the alumnae program, which began in January 2006. Both had been members of the Alumnae Association’s Project Continuum committee, an affinity group of “women in transition” and were aware of the financial concerns—trusts and estates, wills, health-care—of middle-aged and older women. They also knew Continuum events about these subjects had always drawn crowds.

Lynn Najman ’72, a registered investment adviser and certified financial planner, who runs her own Long-Island-based firm, LRN Associates, became another participant as did two non-alumnae: Susan Cabral, of Cabral Associates, a financial consulting firm, and James Sykes, a former arbitrageur who also taught economics and art history at Manhattan’s Brearley School.

These six people became the core teaching group for Financial Fluency 101, a 16-hour mini-course taken over a series of days or evenings, and first offered in 2005. In August 2005, Christine Valenza Shin ’84 joined the program as coordinator, and now serves as a full-time director, working with additional volunteers and consultants.

The FF101 course has since been divided into two components. Financial Planning 101 offers instruction in day-to-day planning and retirement planning at any life stage. Included in the course are trusts and estate-planning, health-care proxies, and powers of attorney. Another attraction: the course discusses finding and working effectively with a financial planner.

Investing 101 deals with equities, the bond market, mutual funds, and asset allocation. Kelleher, who instructs alumnae about stocks, notes the range of knowledge about securities is wide. “A key point is to learn the language of finance, for personal and professional needs,” she stresses. While no advice on selecting equities for investment is offered, Kelleher instructs students what to look for when evaluating an equity and discusses the markers of financial health. All instructors urge both students and alumnae not to buy what they don’t understand, and most find that case studies are an effective means to convey key principles.

Alumnae reaction from those who have taken the course has been enthusiastic. Wrote one alumna, “My daughter, a financial-world person, was proud ... I was taking this class ... [W]hen I met with my financial advisors, they were also amazed at the ‘learning curve.’” Another alumna encouraged the College to spread the word among students: “Please encourage current students to pay attention to financial matters—they need to start early!” A third said simply, “Thank you, Barnard, you are a life-long resource.” Of course, there have been suggestions as wel, like this one, “Having material to read in advance might be helpful ...”

Potential students can take one course or both. In April 2008, a weekend intensive course with both segments drew several people outside the tri-state New York area. A recent addition to the alumnae program is the “Select Topics in Finance” seminars, designed for alumnae with more sophisticated and complex financial situations. New outreach and stand-alone events will be added to the basic program as it grows. Shin and colleagues in Alumnae Affairs have scheduled two programs with the Young Alumnae and Project Continuum: Women in Transition affinity groups.

Shin also highlights two Financial Fluency events scheduled in 2009 for regional Barnard clubs: a conference in Boston that will tackle the subject of investing in troubled times, and an event in Washington, D.C., to which potential volunteer teachers will be invited. This year, both student and alumnae programs have joined forces, with students reaping the benefits of the differing perspectives of the instructors who participate in the alumnae program. A future possibility is remote learning via webinars dealing with different topics. Expanding the Financial Fluency program to a broader constituency is a key goal as well. Exploring partnerships with Morningside Heights groups will enable the program to share basic and all-important financial knowledge and know-how with the local community beyond the College, says Shin.

-Annette Kahn, photograph by Victoria Cohen