As an undergrad, you might have traded tips with classmates about the best late-night food delivery or campus study spots. But for some students in Greenville, N.C., the conversations get more personal: “Can we talk about your credit card debt?”
Cue the cringes. Our finances aren’t something we drop into conversation at college — or afterwards. In fact, the majority of Americans would rather talk about sex or death over money.
This hush-hush attitude bleeds into our education system. Although 89 percent of Americans believe personal finance should be taught in schools, a mere 29 percent of people have ever been offered money management classes. Even worse, the financial literacy programs that are offered often have little to no impact, according to a recent meta-study in Management Science.
But the picture looks rosier at Greenville’s East Carolina University, thanks to a trio known as “The Money Professors.” Over the past 15 years, Mark Weitzel, Len Rhodes, and Bill Pratt have dedicated their lives to helping young adults manage money — beginning with a 60-student personal finance course at ECU that has now led to a private consulting service, three published books and appearances in the Wall Street Journal, Money magazine and more.
Their impact is anecdotal, but notable: One student told us the course helped him cut down his $28,000 student loan payment by five years, and every semester, the entire class (now 500 strong) rises to the challenge of collectively saving $100,000.
So, we wondered, what’s the Money Professors’ secret to addressing the financial literacy gap — and what can the rest of us learn from their approach?
Money Management Is in Your Mind
Financial literacy often focuses on arming people with an understanding of basic terms — stocks, bonds, IRAs, 401(k)s — but the aforementioned study found there’s no correlation between knowing financial facts and behaving more responsibly. Instead, it’s the psychology of money that matters.
The professors take this to heart: They review different “money personalities” in class — Are you a risk taker? An obsessive planner? Do you stick your head in the sand? — so students understand that money habits are just like any other personality trait, and have their own potential pitfalls. Then they ask students to think about budgeting in terms of their goals. In other words, it’s not just about setting up spreadsheets or money management apps, it’s about figuring out your values (and how to live by them).
“You always hear that successful people write their goals down,” says Rhodes, “So, we put that in the context of your budget. It’s how you [define] your goals.”
The takeaway: You may know your stocks from your bonds, but unless you understand your mindset and your goals, definitions won’t make a difference.
… But It’s a Mindset You Need to Put into Practice
The same Management Science study suggests that hands-on, timely experience may be crucial to forming healthy money habits. Unless whatever your professor, parent or financial advisor is telling you is applicable right now, you’re not likely to remember the lesson down the line.
In Rhodes’ class, students not only set their goals down in writing — they answer to them. Throughout the semester, they fill out a survey detailing how much they’ve saved and whether they’ve reached their goals (which range from “start an emergency fund” to “buy a puppy”). They also ask students to make real-world calculations, such as what percentage of a typical entry-level paycheck a new iPhone might represent, or how many hours of work went to your monthly coffee spend.
At the end of the semester, if the professors have done their job right, thinking about spending in the context of earning becomes second nature to their students. As Rhodes says, “Everything is more expensive than we think.”
The takeaway: Check your habits against your values — and your means. Many of us give our paychecks to more daily, unimportant purchases than we’d like to admit.
And It’s OK to Talk About It
Perhaps the biggest lesson from the Money Professors is that we need to start framing personal finance not as a course but as a conversation — one that’s frank, personal and ongoing.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all advice, because you can’t divorce your financial life from your life.”
The curriculum is largely inspired by Rhodes’, Weitzel’s and Pratt’s own financial mistakes, as well as experiences shared by students over the past 15 years. Rhodes tells the story of how he got a credit card at 18, ran up the charges and spent years paying off the debt. It helps students open up about their own struggles, he says—they come up after class or in office hours saying, “I did exactly what you did,” or “My fiancé has $10,000 in credit card debt, and I had no idea. What now?”
The curriculum’s structure echoes the sentiment behind financial coaching, where counselors talk people through their current financial decisions or goals, and hold them accountable.“There’s no one-size-fits-all advice, because you can’t divorce your financial life from your life,” says Rhodes. “It’s about instilling the confidence in someone to say, ‘You know what, I’m in the best position to decide how I want to spend my money.’”
The takeaway: Find people that you trust—your parents, a financial planner, your boss—and ask them how they manage their money. Talking about personal finances isn’t easy, but it’s empowering for everyone.