Financial fitness education is a critical piece of community development, given today's socioeconomic climate consisting of the deregulation of government institutions and the increasing complexity of financial services. These changes are occurring when personal savings are low and bankruptcy rates are high, with 1.35 million filings in 1997. Twelve million households, one-half of which receive public assistance, do not have bank accounts. Subsequently, in an ever more difficult financial system through which to navigate, there remains a significant number of novice consumers, who would benefit greatly from financial fitness education.
The financial system is not only complex but also laden with institutional barriers and potential pitfalls. Over the years, access to legitimate financial institutions and credit in low-income neighborhoods has become increasingly limited, whereby local bank branches have been replaced by expensive fringe banking outlets, such as check-cashing stores, payday loan outlets and pawnshops.
Moreover, some residents face cultural or language barriers that prevent them from fully accessing appropriate financial services. Other dangers include consumer scams and schemes, as well as predatory lending practices -- high-cost loans targeted to people who cannot afford to repay them. Financial fitness education can help families become more aware of common pitfalls and thus avoid them while helping them to learn the financial management and planning skills needed to make the most of their income, savings and assets. Such education is vital for low- and moderate-income families who are fulfilling basic needs currently but are precariously positioned to overestimate the reach of their income, with little or no savings as a cushion.
Recent changes in the national economy and public policy have led to a rise in the number of organizations developing and delivering financial fitness education. Approximately 20 formal curricula are in circulation around the country, being used by Cooperative Extension and education organizations; government agencies; consumer, nonprofit and community organizations; as well as private financial institutions and credit agencies. These organizations often share the objective of helping people to choose and use financial services successfully.
Developing an effective financial fitness education program that will help local constituents move beyond fulfilling basic needs to accumulating savings -- and even assets -- while avoiding all of the perils along the way requires careful planning. Since each community has a unique target population, goals and resources, there cannot be a "one size fits all" program. Rather, an organization needs to develop a program that matches its goals along with the needs of the target population. This start-up guide is designed to help NeighborWorks organizations analyze the local need and their internal capacity for developing a financial fitness education program to increase consumers' money management skills, and in turn, to enable previously underserved markets to attain homeownership.