Financial education and counseling

Strategy overview

  • Setting and achieving financial goals: Financial education and counseling programs provide coaching, coursework, tools, and more for participants to improve their short- and long-term financial wellbeing. Goals typically include debt reduction, building savings, opening safe bank accounts, establishing and improving credit, budgeting, and more.
  • Reaching a range of clients: While some programs are available to all residents, others are highly tailored to a specific subset, such as high school students and their families, victims of domestic violence, justice-involved individuals, residents in subsidized housing, and others. The target population often dictates delivery location, which may be within a government office, a community-based organization, a shelter, or other safe and public spaces.
  • Professional financial coaching: Trained, professional financial coaches or counselors often deliver the model through one-on-one coaching sessions; to reach broader audiences, coaches or financial professionals may also teach financial education classes or budgeting workshops. Coaches work directly with clients to set specific financial goals and then develop strategies for clients to achieve them. In many cases, coaches also track outcomes to help ensure clients have a mechanism for accountability.
  • Recruitment and delivery alongside partners: Oftentimes, programs are delivered as part of a partnership, such as between a city-run financial empowerment center, a nonprofit multiservice agency, and a school district. Each partner can, in turn, help identify funding sources and potential client pools. Strategic partnerships allow programs to reach more residents and share overlapping costs (like marketing and office space). In some cases, these partnerships may help achieve a “supervitamin effect,” wherein complementary services delivered in tandem increase the impact of one another.
Target Population
Adults and families, High school-aged children
Key Stakeholders
Mayor or County Executive's Office, Nonprofit Partner, Consumer Affairs Department, Program Evaluation Team

What evidence supports this strategy?

Strong

Financial education and counseling programs have demonstrated some positive results in two randomized control trials, in addition to strong anecdotal evidence. Further rigorous evaluation is needed to confirm effects. 

  • A comprehensive evaluation on the impacts of financial coaching programs conducted by the Urban Institute in 2015 (including a randomized control trial) found positive but limited results: participants had increased total savings; reduced debt; and in increased likelihood of maintaining a budget.

  • A 2016 randomized control trial on financial literacy programming for economically vulnerable women found a significant increase in self-reported financial knowledge and behaviors.

  • A 2017 internal evaluation of financial empowerment centers found strong anecdotal evidence that clients increased their credit scores, reduced their debt, and increased their savings.

How do outcomes in elementary and middle school affect economic mobility?

  • Saving for the future: Financial education and counseling programs help families save more for future costs and reduce debt. Research shows that increased savings are a primary factor in intergenerational upward economic mobility.
  • Stabilizing income streams: Financial education, coaching, and similar programs help residents develop strategies to stabilize their income streams. Research demonstrates that children who grow up in a household with stable income are more likely to be upwardly economically mobile.
  • Accessing college: Many financial education and counseling programs help families build savings for their children to access postsecondary education. Obtaining a postsecondary degree better positions individuals for high-quality employment and higher lifetime earnings.

Best practices in implementation

  • Prioritize hiring high-quality coaches: Coaches are at the foundation of most financial education and counseling programs. They often deliver nearly all components of the program, from client recruitment to meeting with residents to evaluating outcomes. Conduct a broad, rigorous search for trained, professional coaches who also demonstrate a strong familiarity with the community in which the program operates.
  • Integrate into existing social service operations: Partnerships with social service agencies, community-based organizations, and other nonprofits allows financial education and counseling programs to reach more potential clients, create referral networks, and reduce transit and time barriers for clients. A particularly valuable form of partnership is site co-location, which allows clients to access key services like food pantries, health clinics, and temporary housing alongside financial counseling.
  • Invest in data capacity to build trust among clients and funders: Successful financial education and counseling programs include a robust data collection and evaluation component, such as tracking outcome data like debt reduction and increased savings. Doing so can have a strong impact for a range of stakeholders; for clients, the data can serve as a motivator and strengthen a relationship with their coach; for funders, such data can demonstrate success; and for the program itself, such data collection can be used to measure and refine the program for continuous improvement.
  • Take creative approaches to client recruitment and engagement: Depending on the target population and delivery site, coaches can take nontraditional approaches to cultivating relationships with new clients. For instance, high school students are often more likely to respond to text messages than emails; social service recipients may prefer an in-person conversation at a community event before scheduling an individual session. Programs can also set aside funding for small incentive programs (such as Amazon gift cards), that can be used to encourage repeat visits and reaching small goals (like opening a bank account).

Evidence-based examples

Provides free financial education and counseling to residents
Stable and healthy families
Promising
Teaches program participants key financial concepts and skills, like budgeting, managing debt, and setting and achieving financial goals
Stable and healthy families
Promising