April 29, 2019

Shaking the Money Tree

UMass Smart About Money program teaches their peers about financial literacy

Have you ever thought you could benefit from personal finance coaching? For students at UMass Amherst, money management coaching is available for free, one-on-one, for students by students.

UMass Smart About Money is a student-run group created to help students manage their monetary life at college and establish good habits for later. “It’s the beginning of their adult financial life,” says director Julia Bergh ’18. In addition to one-on-one coaching, SAM hosts presentations, workshops, and events throughout the year, like Money Mondays in the Campus Center, or zipping around campus in the Cash Cab, to help students learn key financial concepts.

Money tree

Outside SAM’s headquarters in the bursar’s office in Whitmore, a money tree promotes financial literacy.

Clients begin by filling out a coaching form and stating their money goal. The questions on the form signal the coach what to ask the client.

Students come to SAM with an array of goals as diverse as they are. To graduate with the least amount of debt possible. To graduate with $10,000 saved. To continue the small business they started as a side hustle after graduating. To gain clarity amid the ambiguity of credit. To understand what it will take to move off campus. Even just for help planning to save up for spring break!

After they’ve stated their goal, the coach guides the client into action steps: “’Okay, you’re trying to reach this goal,’” says Bergh, “’you’ve just said these three things, now what’s one thing you can do to get closer to that—why don’t you write that down?”

With objective eyes, coaches see things their clients might miss. “We try to bring their goals into perspective for them,” explains Bergh. “If they write something that’s vague, we ask, ‘When do you want this done by? With your current income, is it realistic for you to get this done by then? Can you foresee areas where there might be complications?’”

In creating a spending plan (a.k.a. budget), SAM helps students first track their spending, then ground their priorities in reality by enacting concrete decisions: “Now that you know what you’re spending money on,” says Bergh, “how can you reorient your spending so that you’re putting it toward something that means more to you?”

Creating sound habits can help students manage—even mitigate—the student loan debt many will encounter upon graduating. “We can give them strategies for targeting their loans,” says Bergh. “Like talking about the benefits of beginning to pay now, in manageable amounts, rather than later—which also helps build credit.”

Bergh sees the ideal outcome for clients as being able to apply their new knowledge to thinking critically about life decisions they are about to make. “With any sort of financial management, there’s a huge base of knowledge that enables someone to make educated decisions,” she says. “We don’t just teach skills, we teach that foundation.”

“Even if they just come to us to learn,” Bergh continues, “everybody has to start somewhere. Oftentimes they are the first one in their family to take a step into having a conversation like this.

“We build understanding and comfort in talking about those topics.”

UMass SAM holds walk-in hours in the bursar’s office, 215 Whitmore, from 9 am – 4:30 pm every weekday, and in DuBois Library Study Room P from 5 – 8 pm Thursdays while classes are in session.