Business School Volunteers Help Newly Employed Make Sense of Their Money

Special from The Record

April 20, 2011Bookmark and Share
Columbia Business School students and program participants talk about learning the fundamentals of money management. (3:40)

Columbia Business School students are teaching New Yorkers how to manage their money as they transition from unemployment and part-time work to full-time jobs.

“We’re learning about interest and inflation,” said Carlos, one of the participants, whose last names were omitted to protect their privacy. “How to keep your money instead of spending it on reckless things.”

The semester-long mentoring program called Money Makes Cents is run by more than 75 student volunteers from the business school. Last fall, Andrea Davila (BUS’11), Chris Durlacher (BUS’11) and Joe Silver (BUS’11) started the program in partnership with the business school’s Financial Education Society and FEGS Health and Human Services System, a nonprofit agency of the UJA-Federation of New York. Drawing on backgrounds in social enterprise, which applies market-based strategies to bring social benefits to the community, the three students are using their experience and training at Columbia to help people get back on their feet financially.

“We want to share all the finance information we’ve learned at Columbia with people in the community who can greatly benefit from it,” Durlacher said, “so we’re giving people the building blocks they need to create a strong financial life.”

Karen Zuckerman, associate vice president of FEGS’ student internships and volunteer programs, said, “We’ve taken people who are just about to go to work because we want them to be able to understand how they can save some of the money that they’re earning.”

Hudson, another participant, emphasized the importance of being able to put money away. “Saving money impacts my plans big-time,” he said, “because I want to be able to have a house. I want to be able to have a car.”

Program participants begin by filling out a money checklist. “Once we know a client’s problems, we get to work on teaching them how to take responsibility for their own money and how they are going to spend and save—very much like a financial planner does in the private sector,” said Silver.

Each person must attend at least five sessions to graduate. About a dozen residents from New York’s five boroughs participated in the fall session, and a similar number are now enrolled in the spring term. Working one-on-one with the business students, participants each receive a financial plan tailored to their needs.

Fred, 51, said the individual attention helped him overcome fears that financial ideas might be too complicated to understand. “I was a little scared when I started,” he said. “But the students put things into plain English, and then you own the ideas.”

All the sessions are held on campus. Participants are expected to attend regularly and are awarded a certificate upon completion of the program. “Getting our clients on campus and making them feel like a part of Columbia shows that we take them seriously, and that we take this teaching seriously,” Davila said.

Lionel said the program brought new focus to his financial planning. “When you come here and you speak it out loud and you have somebody sitting with you and they’re listening,” he said, your plans “become a little bit more real.”

The hope is that graduates will take home new skills including an understanding of how compound interest can increase wealth, the ability to create a realistic budget and a clear view of their financial goals.

“It’s awesome to see my fellow classmates—future bankers and Wall Street titans—using their knowledge right here in Morningside Heights,” Davila said. “This is the kind of program you keep with you for a long time.”

For the clients, the benefits can be long-lasting, too. “I really learned to prepare myself for the future,” Fred said. “I’m not just going to get by from paycheck to paycheck anymore. My new goal is to be ready for retirement.”

—by Roger Fortuna