Making an Impact: Financial Literacy

Along with supporting Education and Health,  building Income is one of United Way of Whatcom County’s three focus areas to create a better quality of life.  Living within a budget, managing monthly bills, and understanding debt are all keys to building stability.  Budgeting weekly expenses and keeping track of household finances can be difficult, frustrating, and prevent families from leading fulfilling lives.  Financial literacy is an essential life skill and a key component of economic vitality; that’s why United Way of Whatcom County is proud to support several programs that help people learn the skills they need to reach financial stability and increase independence.
According to a report by the Organization for Economic Co-Operations and Development, being “financially literate” means being able to balance a budget, buy a home, save money for college and plan for retirement. As financial tools for borrowing and saving become more and more complex, it becomes increasingly vital that people understand how to manage their money.
Each year, United Way supported programs help approximately 850 individuals acquire the financial literacy skills and life skills they need to become self-sufficient and productive citizens in our community. Studies show that financially literate individuals are less likely to rely on government-funded assistance, more likely to save for the future and more likely to make smarter borrowing decisions.
Support for United Way-funded financial literacy programs is made possible through generous donations from community members and local businesses. These programs serve a variety of people, including domestic violence survivors, individuals who are homeless and individuals who simply want to take better control of their finances.
Mindy Gravley, Program Director for Lydia Place, says it is particularly important for women to know how to take control of their finances. Lydia Place is a six-month transitional housing program for women and their children. The women at Lydia Place learn to make goals for their future and essential life skills, including making a budget, checking credit scores and paying rent on time. Gravley says that some clients do not come from a financially stable background, and may not know how to be financially responsible.  In addition, some clients may also be survivors of domestic violence and don’t have experience dealing with finances.
“We focus on breaking the cycle of generational poverty,” Gravley says. “A lot of these clients have been in domestic violence situations, and they have been dependent on another individual. Everything we teach centers around independence, so in the worst case scenario, they know what to do on their own.”
Gravley says United Way funds are crucial to maintaining the one on one case management aspect of the program. While Lydia Place provides classes about general life skills, each client works directly with their own case manager to create a personalized financial plan. 
“United Way supports Lydia Place’s goal of helping clients become independent,” Gravley says. “Our goal is to help clients achieve their dreams and get an education, but in order to maintain that lifestyle, they have to know how to maintain that financial literacy piece.”
As their name might suggest, The Whatcom Literacy Council (WLC) focuses on improving the reading skills of adults and non-native speakers. The agency helps clients achieve their personal goals, which can include things like applying for a job, earning a new certification, gaining new computer skills or earning a GED. All of these skills help people achieve financial independence and stability and strengthen the community by decreasing poverty rates and empowering individuals to sustain themselves. 
Poor literacy skills are very highly correlated with poverty.  An estimated 3 out of 4 food stamp recipients struggles with their literacy skills. Gaining stronger literacy skills and meeting specific goals such as earning a GED expands a learner's job options and helps them to move up in their current job. United Way funds are used to recruit and train volunteer tutors, create individual learning plans and provide resources and information that will help learners move forward toward their goals. Each year, WLC learners meet approximately 530 of their literacy goals, and usually, 85 of those goals are related to improving employment skills.
The Opportunity Council’s Homeless Housing Program provides both short-term and transitional housing options, as well as access to resources and services to help families reach independence. Financial Literacy and Renter Education, or FLARE, is one of these services.
FLARE is a six-week course offered to those in the housing program as well as the larger community. One-half of the program focuses on building a budget and paying attention to where money is spent, while the other half is focused on being a good tenant, interacting with landlords and paying bills and  rent on time.
Debbie Paton of The Opportunity Council says the course causes people to examine where their finances are going and develop strategies to support themselves on a small budget.
The program compliments other life skills classes, including job skill classes, communication workshops and cooking classes that teach individuals how to eat nutritious meals with limited funds.
“Our clients often work with limited income, we help them learn to stretch their budget and pay bills on time. It’s all about people stretching limited incomes,” Paton says.
The Washington State Department of Financial Institutions reports that more than 9 out of 10 adults and students believe it is important for the people of the United States to have a good understanding of economics, but only half of high school students indicate that they have been taught economics in school.  The average household carries approximately $12,000 to $15,000 in total revolving debt making the annual outstanding debt approximately $845 billion a year in America.
Supporting financial literacy is just one of the ways that United Way of Whatcom County is investing in building stable Income for local families.  Our supporters help us ensure that dollars go toward programs that educate a wide variety of people on how to spend smart, save smart and live smart. Financially literate individuals lead more productive lives, reduces strain on government programs and makes our community stronger.  Your donation makes that possible and truly embodies what it means to LIVE UNITED.

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