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UMaine Today Magazine

Student Focus

Student Focus Cents and Sensibility

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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 Counties.

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 building 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 the effort.

"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."


UMaine Today Magazine
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