Monday, July 22, 2019

Tools for Financial Literacy @ UCI

by Nandita Badami, doctoral candidate in Anthropology at UC Irvine

What do a fairy princess ball, a personal finance survey generator, and an online arcade game have in common? They are all tools that can be used to improve communication, learnings, and engagement with financial literacy.

This was only one of the many takeaways from the Tools for Financial Literacy, Empowerment and Justice convening held on June 28 at UCI’s Student Center. Hosted by the Institute for Money, Technology, and Financial Inclusion (IMTFI) and sponsored by Wells Fargo, the convening was a day of interactive workshops and talks that brought together practitioners from Orange County and LA County community organizations with experts in the fields of financial literacy research and pedagogy.

The day opened with welcoming remarks from Keith Kobata, Wells Fargo region bank president for Orange County, and Professor Bill Maurer, IMTFI Director and Dean of the School of Social Sciences at UCI. Prof. Maurer discussed the importance of acknowledging that many in the room had several years of engagement in the field of financial literacy (as directors or implementers of their institution’s programs), but relatively few had received formal financial literacy training in the course of their own education. Financial literacy is only just getting recognized in school and college curricula, and is a long way from being mainstreamed. The purpose of the convening, Maurer reiterated, was to “connect as a community, refresh perspectives, and to share resources towards a common goal.”

Organizations in attendance. Photo credit: Katie Sauer, Twitter
Resource sharing guided activities for the rest of the day: three invited expert organizations – Brain Arts Productions, the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE), and Next Gen Personal Finance (NGPF) – shared very different methods and approaches to engage learning.

Brain Arts Productions specializes in building financial literacy through the creative arts. Gwen Tulin and Liz Lark-Riley began the day with an interactive activity that got all the participants on their feet, working through difference between barter and trade through a card game, and demonstrating a teaching technique called Learning by Doing. Each participant received a packet of four to six cards, and a number (taped to a scroll on the bottom of their chairs!). The objective of the game was to get four cards that matched the number on their scroll, but participants could only do so by a 1-to-1 barter system: they could only trade one card at a time with someone else. Participants had only 10 minutes replace all the cards they were dealt with to match their personal number. After they did, they yelled “Match!” The game then abruptly changed: the organizers told us we had all won the lottery, and everyone received new wildcards that could be traded for anything. In this new form of the game, trading became easier, and many more people were able to yell “Match!”

After the activity, Gwen and Liz led the group through a reflection exercise. The point of the game was to demonstrate the difference between barter and trade using money—in this case, the wildcard that could be traded for any other card—but also to have the group converse with one another so that they could come to the realization that the privileges in the game were unfairly distributed. Some people had more cards to begin with (6, not 4), and this made it easier for them to win the game. The takeaway was as much about the difference between barter and trade as it was about the politics of resource distribution.

Bartering activity led by Brain Arts Productions.

Following the first workshop, senior director Dr. Katie Sauer of the National Endowment of Financial Education (NEFE), gave participants an overview of the current state of the personal finance ecosystem. Dr. Sauer showed how various elements – small dose lesson plans (not part of a broader curriculum), articles and reference resources, calculators, tips and tricks, expert advice, coaching, fintech innovations – interact to make a financial literacy ecosystem. Speaking about the need to understand how the various elements interact in order to “rightsize” expectations from individual interventions, Dr. Sauer challenged the audience to go beyond thinking in terms of individual interventions, and consider instead how to deploy several elements of the ecosystem together. She then finished off her research presentation by sharing NEFE’s Financial Education Evaluation Toolkit, an online tool to create free personal finance test to evaluate current programming:

Dr. Sauer: "Even the highest quality, perfectly dosed and delivered influence will be mitigated by other elements with the ecosystem."

Personal Finance Ecosystem, National Endowment for Financial Education © 2019 

From an overview of the ecosystem, the participants were then transported to a specific element of it. Christian Sherrill from Next Gen Personal Finance (NGPF) took the participants through a tour of the contents of the NGPF website – a resource hub for financial literacy educators. The participants explored NGPF’s various resources – including an interactive library, a quiz games library, and a video library. They also spent time on the website’s arcades page playing NGPF’s specially designed video games that help “game out” real life situations. These situations included paying for college, managing credit, making it through the month on a tight budget, and even what it means to live life as an Uber driver! Our table went through the budgeting app SPENT. We were each given a scenario, playing as an unemployed American (of the 14 million that currently exist), with meagre savings of $1000. How were we going to make it through the month? Some of us made it, some of us didn’t—but playing through real-life situations allowed us to appreciate the stakes involved in good budgeting (try it here:

Learning by playing, NGPF's Christian Sherrill. Check out their free online personal finance arcade games here:

Brain Arts’s second activity demonstrated a tool called Process Drama where volunteers were invited to attend and buy provisions for a fairy princess ball. The group needed to travel to the Goblin Market and make decisions about what and how much to buy together. In doing so, the group was able to arrive at ways to negotiate personal values and spending as a group. Although an obviously unrealistic scenario, as is point of process drama—role-playing builds worlds through which to explore financial situations in low stakes contexts. Alternate worlds allow individuals to who tend to be more conservative or worried about taking risks in real life to explore multiple possibilities in a risk-free environment. Topics covered through process drama can include the following: negotiating for a raise, buying a house for the first time, applying for student loans, learning how to invest, and opening a bank account. After the activity, participants brainstormed contexts in which elements of their existing programs could be conveyed through process drama activity.

At Goblin Market: Process Drama activity with Brain Arts Productions to learn and reflect upon unconventional pedagogical techniques for financial education.

Brainstorming ways to use process drama for existing programs.

In addition to these workshops, Linda Nguyen, Vice President of Corporate Philanthropy and Community Relations at Wells Fargo, led a roundtable discussion with community practitioners: Claudia Flores from Human Options, Mary Anne Foo of OCAPICA, Yanet Gonzalez from Templo Calvario CDC, and Steven Kim from Project Kinship. Together, they discussed the importance of financial education, its role in transitioning from survival to sustainability, and solving the problem of generational poverty. They also discussed the various challenges facing the financial literacy training community such as:
  • how to integrate financial literacy into existing programs (for instance, parenting—how do you model financial literacy for kids?)
  • how to assess the level of financial literacy of individuals to point them in the direction of appropriate programs (a finlit course, or more extensive knowledge and behavioral changes?)
  • the challenge of integrating financial health and mental health, and serving critical populations like refugees or victims of domestic violence.
Related to the latter point was the importance of recognizing financial abuse as a kind of domestic abuse to begin with. Questions and answers after the roundtable touched upon an additional challenge: how to measure success. As one participant put it, perhaps there is no “magic ruler” to measure success; success in this field looks different depending on where you start out.

Roundtable of community practioners.

Steven Kim of Project Kinship unfurling a list of the 48,000 barriers to employment if you have a felony conviction.

Participants took away ideas they wanted to develop further and eventually implement in pilot programs or additions to their existing activities. It was great opportunity to take time out of the day-to-day grind, take a step back, and imagine new ways of connecting and learning. As Monica Sauceda, who teaches financial literacy and entrepreneurship to high school youth at Templo Calvario CDC put it, “This event was very important to me as I have looked up some of the resources provided at the event on my own but as a small non-profit we do not have a team of trained individuals to do extensive research nor are experts in teaching. We rely on events like these to be informed and network with like-minded people to bounce ideas off of to be able to better serve our community.”

Towards the very end of the day, Prof. Maurer announced avenues for further engagement, including opportunities for expertise sharing between the UCI team and the various participants. The day ended with a networking reception, and promises for next steps at a national scale!

To access additional open access online educational and research resources visit:

Photo credits: AntMedia UCI Student Center Event Services.

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