How credit unions can fix the financial literacy crisis

The Great Recession officially ended six years ago, but many consumers still believe they’re on shaky financial footing. According to a new study, more than a quarter of Americans (27 percent) say they don’t feel in control of their finances.

The 2015 Consumer Banking Insights Study (CBI)—commissioned by BancVue on behalf of nearly 300 community financial institutions (CFIs) offering its Kasasa® brand of checking accounts—found that Americans’ financial control is lower this year than it was in 2013. The study was conducted online by Harris Poll in January 2015 among more than 1,000 U.S. adults (ages 18 and up).

Older Americans in particular seem to be moving in the wrong direction when it comes to their sense of financial control. The 2015 survey found that 67 percent of adults ages 55 and up agree that they’re in control of their finances today, down 16 percentage points from 2013.

Millennials (ages 18 to 34) are slightly more optimistic about their finances, with 79 percent saying they feel in control. Yet, that number is down 4 percentage points from 2013 and may continue to decrease as this generation grapples with a weak job market and heavy student loan debt. The average student loan debt for Millennials in 2014 was $27,305, according to an Experian study.

The lack of financial confidence among many consumers may have a correlation to low levels of financial literacy. According to the NFCC 2014 Consumer Financial Literacy Survey, only about 2 in 5 adults have a budget and keep close track of their spending. Additionally, 3 in 4 say they could benefit from advice and answers to everyday financial questions from a professional.

So, what’s the solution? Research suggests that credit unions are well positioned to help consumers with these challenges.

According to the CBI study, community bank and credit union customers* (70 percent) are more likely to see their bank as a partner in managing their finances when compared to megabank customers* (57 percent). And fully 92 percent of customers who use a community financial institution believe their institution is open and transparent with changes, compared to 78 percent of megabank customers.

For credit unions interested in supporting members and boosting business, these three steps can help:

  1. Educate. Most credit unions already have excellent, hands-on staff. Fully 64 percent of Americans think community financial institutions have better personal service (any interaction with another person face-to-face, over the phone or online) than the big national banks.

As such, it makes sense for credit unions to leverage that strength and provide more in-person, basic banking advice to consumers who desperately need it. For example, fully 1 in 4 consumers (25 percent) feel scammed by bank fees, yet 1 in 5 consumers (20 percent) have never even checked their account for fees.

Credit unions should also take advantage of all communications channels, like e-newsletters, social media and websites, to better inform their members. In-person interactions and in-branch information sessions are also crucial, especially for younger members. According to the CBI, 88 percent of Millennials would prefer to do at least some banking in person, and specifically more than 2 in 5 Millennials (42 percent) want to receive financial advice in person rather than other ways, such as by phone, online or via mobile app.

  1. Provide the right tools. Research indicates that some of the most common financial problems could be solved with better money management. According to the NFCC 2014 Consumer Financial Literacy survey, 24 percent of adults do not pay all of their bills on time, and 34 percent have no savings outside of retirement accounts.

Offering online or mobile personal financial management tools (PFM) can help members avoid late bill payments, establish a budget, or set up automatic savings plans. These tools can also be used to attract and retain members. Among Millennials, 94 percent say access to a mobile or online personal financial management platform is at least somewhat important when it comes to choosing a bank.

  1. Offer consumer-friendly products. Certain banking products and incentives can encourage consumers to develop healthier financial habits and help them save more money.

Credit unions can help members eliminate or reduce fees by offering products that are fee-free or that reduce fees when account holders take certain steps, like switching to electronic statements or maintaining a minimum account balance. Not only does this allow members to keep more of their own money, but it also boosts the credit union’s appeal. Nearly all consumers (98 percent) say few or no fees on checking and savings accounts are at least somewhat important to them when it comes to choosing a credit union.

Additionally, rewards-based products can help members develop more positive financial behaviors. Many of these products are structured so that account holders receive higher rewards for maintaining higher balances, providing a nice incentive for savers. These products are also in demand: 51 percent of consumers say rewards are a very important or important factor when choosing a financial institution.

The steps above allow credit unions to help consumers better manage their finances as well as retain current members and attract new ones. According to the CBI, 41 percent of Americans would consider switching banks for lower fees; 39 percent would do so for better rewards; and 32 percent would do so for better products or services, such as free checking and financial management tools.

It’s truly a win-win situation. Credit unions can help consumers gain control of their finances and, at the same time, gain market share by providing the education, products and tools consumers want and need.

*Throughout this report “megabank customers” are checking account holders who consider one of the big national banks to be their primary banking institution and “community bank and credit union customers” are those who consider a local community bank or a credit union to be their primary banking institution.   “Consumers” are defined as U.S. adults ages 18 and up who have a checking account at a financial institution.

Gabe Krajicek

Gabe Krajicek

Gabe Krajicek is the chief executive officer of BancVue, the leader in branded, community-powered banking products. BancVue’s innovative Kasasa® suite connects breakthrough products with world-class marketing, data-driven consulting, and ... Web: Details