Blugolds work to build financial literacy across campus

| Judy Berthiaume

Like many Blugolds, Emily Huerta came to UW-Eau Claire confident that she had the skills she needed to be successful in college when it came to mastering things like science, math and English.

Financial literacy? Not so much.

“It is a fundamental of our lives,” Huerta says of managing money. “Nobody wants to be financially illiterate, and sometimes it is just a lack of information. There were never any convenient times or programs in place at my high school that gave me any information on these things.”

Fortunately for Huerta, leaders of Blu$Gold Financial Management are working to give her and other UW-Eau Claire students, faculty and staff the knowledge they need to better manage their finances from the time they are young adults through their retirement years.

“Financial literacy isn’t something to fear,” says Wyatt Haas, a senior finance and economics major from Osseo who is president of the student organization. “Retirement planning, insurance, salary negotiation skills, knowing how to interpret a credit score, or any of the other things associated with finance should be tools to help you reach your goals.

“You don’t need to know how to manage a hedge fund, but we want to give you the resources you need to work toward whatever goals you might have, financially or otherwise.”

Now in its second year as a student organization, Blu$Gold’s student leaders have partnered with area financial institutions, accounting firms and nonprofits, as well as the College of Business and McIntyre Library on campus, to create and distribute financial literacy curriculum to the UW-Eau Claire campus community.

Blu$Gold offers a variety of programs to meet the diverse needs of the campus community, from large workshops for 100-plus participants to small discussion groups for a handful of people, Haas says.

Having students teaching students is a key element of the program and makes the training/program that much stronger, says Mark Alfuth, a senior lecturer in accounting and finance and one of Blu$Gold's faculty mentors.

The program uses experts to help create some curriculum and students also do their own current research on topics, says Alfuth.

"I think this is the critical element — students helping students," Alfuth says. "I don’t think it gets better than that — who better to understand and empathize with the student than another student. It’s much more relevant to have students talking with other students rather than professionals who might be seen as just pushing their product, or an older professor or other person who may not be able to relate to the student as much."

When Huerta heard about the Blu$Gold program options, she signed up for a session on financial literacy.

An intern in Blugold Beginnings, she also encouraged the students in her cohort to join her in the session.

“As a college student, it can be overwhelming at times to manage your own money wisely,” says Huerta, an environmental geography major from Fort Atkinson. “I wanted to introduce, encourage and emphasize the importance of financial literacy, budgeting, etc., for myself and my team.

“Informing students and encouraging financial literacy will benefit each person to be better off financially by knowing more about their finances and how to make wise decisions with our money.”

Personally, she says, she found the information about budgeting, credit, loans and housing to be especially helpful.

“I thought it was extremely beneficial to get basic information, even if some of it may be a refresher for some,” Huerta says. “I really took a lot from the college housing informational session. I did not know anything about college housing financing before I had signed a lease.”

Haas says another popular Blu$Gold workshop includes nine financial literacy topics, touching on financial scams, earning credit, renting, 401(k), student loans, budgeting, investing, retirement and even “how to become a millionaire.”

Each participant picks three of the nine sessions to focus on during the session, he says.

“Right now, one of our biggest initiatives is our ‘Game of Life’ simulation,” Haas says. “We created a simulation that allows participants to feel what it’s like to go from age 18 through retirement and make all of the big financial decisions along the way.

“Participants do things like set up a retirement fund, get insurance, buy a house, build their credit and a ton more.”

The simulation was created by UW-Eau Claire students and uses financial elements that are based on the UW-Eau Claire environment, Alfuth says.

"That means that housing costs, job salaries, etc. are customized to the UW-Eau Claire community," Alfuth says. "The plan is to make this an ongoing activity for students — not just an event but ongoing dynamic learning throughout their educational career at UW-Eau Claire, and potentially beyond."

Participants in the simulation often are surprised by many things they learn through the activity, from the impact of inflation, to the cost of insurance to the importance of having a health power of attorney form on file with their doctor, Alfuth says.

This summer, Haas and his team will present their “Game of Life” simulation to new freshmen during orientation, helping the university’s newest Blugolds begin thinking about and building their financial literacy before they even take their first class as a student.

“We hope that by introducing them to financial literacy right away when they come to UW-Eau Claire, we can foster a relationship with each student and continue to be a resource for them as they continue through college,” Haas says.

Ideally, Haas says, Blu$Gold curriculum will eventually be integrated into every student’s path to graduation.

“This would mean that every student has at least a baseline understanding of what they need to do to make their individual financial goals happen,” Haas says.

In addition to the group sessions and workshops, Blu$Gold Financial Management also has an office in McIntyre Library (Room 101) where student staff can meet one-on-one with people who have specific questions that relate to financial literacy.

“There we might give people information about how to build credit, how to set up a budget, how to get a student loan, how to navigate a 401(k), or really anything that may might want to talk about,” Haas says of the one-on-one sessions.

As more Blugolds become aware of the free program, the number of programming requests is growing, Haas says.

“Our success speaks volumes about just how much this information is needed, but it also speaks to just how much students want to learn about financial literacy,” Haas says. “We’ve had many students take an interest in what we are teaching. Students want to learn about financial literacy, and we are more than happy to lead the initiatives that bring financial literacy to them.”

While they now are focused on ensuring members of the campus community have access to financial literacy information, they hope Blu$Gold programming eventually will expand into the community and to other universities, Haas says.

“Our first priority is making UW-Eau Claire the most financially literate campus in America,” Haas says. “After we have implemented everything necessary for that to happen, then we want to try to set an example for other campuses around the area and in other states, so we can continue to spread the importance of financial literacy.

“There is a saying that goes ‘Why didn’t I learn that in school’ when it comes to financial literacy. Our goal is to get to a point where no one ever asks that again.”

How important is financial literacy?

"In my opinion everyone needs to have a foundation of three elements in their life," Alfuth says. "They need to be physically healthy, mentally healthy and financially healthy. If one of these things is out of balance, the person will simply not succeed, or have great difficulties at a minimum. It’s that important."

Haas — who will graduate in December — says eventually he’d like to use the Blu$Gold model to make an even bigger difference in his community and country.

“I’ve always been interested in working on projects that better my community; I have a passion for these types of initiatives,” Haas says.

After he graduates, Haas plans to work as an economist for a city government or possibly lead a private initiative to help address the economic disparity issues in the country.

“In a way, I think I’d really love to continue to do a lot of what I’m doing now with Blu$Gold, but just on a larger scale,” Haas says.

For more information about the Blu$Gold Financial Management program, contact Wyatt Haas at haaswf2531@uwec.edu.

Photo caption: Wyatt Haas is among the students leading an effort to help all Blugolds become more financially literate.