Cents and sensibility
There's no denying that the three R's - reading, writing and
arithmetic - are skills every student needs to learn. But a University
of Maine program aims to educate Mainers about the three B's -
budgeting, banking and buying within one's means.
UMaine economics professor George Criner, along with master's students
Hugh Stevens and Sharon Hageman, launched the Household
Financial Education Initiative in September. The effort aims to help
individuals and businesses evaluate their finances; discuss household
budgeting and winterizing; and provide residents with an extensive list
of organizations and programs that can provide assistance.
"We're interested in helping people realize what their situation is
before it reaches a crisis level," says Criner. "We're providing
information to help them make intelligent decisions."
UMaine's School of Economics will collaborate with University of Maine
Cooperative Extension, UMaine's Business School, Maine Centers
for Women, Work, and Community, and several municipalities in eastern
and central Maine. Over time, they hope to reach out to towns
in Franklin, Aroostook, Penobscot, Piscataquis, Washington and Hancock
This feet-on-the-street approach is critical, according to Stevens.
"If they can't afford to pay $5 a gallon for fuel oil, they can't afford
$4 a gallon for gas to drive to a state agency," he says. "We're
going to them, to each and every community our budget allows, to every
community center and church. If we can get two people who
are interested, we'll meet with them."
Just as their geographic reach is broad, so is the range of assistance
they can offer. When people apply for general assistance, the
town often will require recipients to have a budget in place to show how
they plan to get back on track. These students can make a
budget with their eyes closed. But they can also let people know how
much money they'll need to heat their house this winter, how to
open a bank account and how to get out of debt.
Financial education is a good idea in the best of times. As Hageman
says, all high school students should learn these skills. But in tough
economic times like these, it is essential.
This outreach comes at a time when Maine residents are hit with a
one-two punch of rising energy prices and predictions of a long, cold
winter. About 80 percent of Mainers heat their homes with oil, the
highest percentage in the nation. Maine's electricity rates are among
the highest in the nation, as well.
"Our main goal is to go out to help people, especially with the energy
crisis going on right now," Hageman says. "There are people who
are unbanked, who can't save. We want to go out and help them."
To help, Criner, Stevens and Hageman have plugged into existing programs
to offer financial counseling and education in a way that is
immediate and effective. This will benefit their partner organizations
by allowing them to offer extended contract hours without the
added expense or effort of creating a stand-alone program. The UMaine
economists are actively seeking additional partners - both on
and off campus - so they can serve more people.
In turn, Hageman and Stevens will gain invaluable professional
experience. Because this effort is the first of its kind, they are
the initiative from the ground up. Criner hopes that graduate and
undergraduate students from other University of Maine System
campuses in Fort Kent, Machias, Farmington and Presque Isle will join
"I went straight from (the University of Cleveland) to graduate school,
so for me, this is going to help me get into my field, the financial
economics end of it," Hageman says. "I see a lot of opportunities."
Stevens sees the lessons as an investment in Mainers' future. "Giving
somebody money is a one-time action," he says. "We hope
increased financial education would provide people with a long-term
financial coping skill. Not only are we long-term in our outlook, the
skill is long-term, as well."