Personal finance program shows students the path from rags to riches

A business-backed financial literacy program teaches 30,000 students – now including Portland Community College students – finance basics.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: AINSLIE CROMAR - From left to right, Chris Conklin, Kate Benedict and David Prescott stand in a conference room at The Standard, a Portland-based insurance company. The trio help students with financial literacy. Six years ago, David Prescott was an alcoholic living on Southeast 122nd Avenue and Powell Boulevard, where he panhandled for beer money every day, he said.

Financial Beginnings, a financial literacy organization that recently expanded to include Portland Community College students like him, became one of his successes since growing sober and rebuilding his life, Prescott said.

“It changed my whole point of view,” Prescott said. His newfound knowledge in the financial system even enabled him to travel abroad to Bolivia as part of his sociology program.

Financial Beginnings, founded in 2005, is a program striving to solve financial illiteracy in Oregon and Washington. Kate Benedict, executive director of the program, said it serves almost 30,000 students in all grade levels annually.

In hopes of broadening its reach, the organization partnered with Portland Community College Cascade last year and launched a new program: the Student Academy for Financial Empowerment.

The free program is designed to help low-income students manage student loans and debt through five 90-minute workshops and/or a one-on-one mentorship process, Benedict said.

Chris Conklin, vice president of individual annuities for the Portland-based insurance company The Standard, said the empowerment program is important to bring to college-level students.

“It’s a topic that is ignored coming up through school, so there’s a real gap there between the value of it and the opportunity for people to get it,” Conklin said. “Financial Beginnings works to close the gap.”TRIBUNE PHOTO: AINSLIE CROMAR - The Standard Insurance company logo outside the buildings lobby in downtown Portland. The Standard contributed $20,000 to Financial Beginnings newest financial literacy program, Student Academy for Financial Empowerment program.

Keeping Portland students in school

Conklin, who serves on the Financial Beginnings board of directors, said The Standard’s corporate foundation contributed $20,000 to fund the empowerment program.

“This is just a cause that lives very close to our hearts,” he said. “The business that we’re in — insurance and retirement savings — means that the people who work for The Standard really are motivated by wanting people to do the right thing financially, and the right thing for themselves.”

That’s why Conklin and almost 300 others from the community volunteered this year to teach workshops and act as mentors, he said.

Benedict, the executive director, said Financial Beginnings does a lot of outreach, but schools often ask them to provide curricula, too.

“We have a large pipeline of partners,” she said, naming Clackamas Workforce Partnership, Boys and Girls Club Southwest and TalentPath as a few examples. “Our plan is really to work more broadly within the PCC community and then Clackamas Community College, and then be able to expand outside of the Portland metro area.”

By offering the empowerment program to more partnerships, Benedict said they can help more students finish their degrees.

“Students who are accessing higher education — be it community college or universities — often are forced to either drop out or defer their degree because of financial constraints, rather than academic issues,” she said. “We felt like we could provide financial education workshops and one-on-one financial coaching to bridge that gap and help students stay in school.”

Starting young

Students are graduating high school with a limited understanding of how to manage a budget, save money or how to open a checking account, Benedict said. To combat that, they even teach students in kindergarten.

With 5-year-olds, Benedict said the lesson is usually: “What is a dollar bill and why do we use it?”

She added: “Often, in today’s day and age we see people swipe credit cards and we think it’s free money.”

Conklin said he is happy to be part of a program that is bringing financial literacy to young people.

“You have folks who are in a position where if they successfully make it through a program, or make it through an education, their lives will be better and the lives of everyone they touch will be better,” he said. “We just want to maximize that option.”

Prescott, the PCC student, said he never received that education in high school. In fact, until Financial Beginnings, he knew nothing about the financial system.


Prescott said his mentorship with Charlie Verdugo, a KeyBank manager, was so valuable because without Verdugo he would still be in the dark about the loan process.

“No one tells you this stuff, you just go in there and you borrow the money, or you get your Pell Grant,” he said. “I had no idea how the Pell Grant worked and what I was entitled to.”

Could aid be avoided?

After two years at PCC, Prescott said he finally feels like he is on the right track.

“I feel like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “I don’t feel like I’m a victim of the financial system anymore; I feel pretty empowered.”

He said Verdugo also helped him understand how to raise his credit score and purchase a house by telling him from a bank manager’s perspective whether he’d approve Prescott for a loan.

“I feel like I have more control over my credit and, you know, the credit score is so important in today’s society to be able to live,” Prescott said.

Verdugo allowed him to feel like the bank was on his side, too, and now he pays off his credit cards every month and doesn’t touch his savings.

Benedict said after previously working at a food bank, she realized that the need for food aid could be avoided.

“It felt like we were often meeting families after they’ve had a financial struggle and we were providing emergency food in a space where we could have gotten ahead of the curve,” Benedict said. “It’s really a public health issue, I think.”

Financial Beginnings and the empowerment program, she said, allow for proactive efforts to reach people before the worst happens.