Brenda Pollock recalls when a distraught member came to Evergreen Credit Union in Portland, Maine, for financial counseling following the death of her husband.
The woman had two children, a part-time job, and modest savings, and she’d never managed the household finances.
“She walked in and said, ‘my name is Teresa. I haven’t opened my mail in months.’ And she started to cry,” says Pollock, membership development and financial counselor for the $330 million asset credit union. “I told her, ‘we’ve all struggled financially at one time or another. Let’s take it one step at a time.’”
Evergreen’s commitment to financial education and wellness stems from CEO Jason Lindstrom, Pollock says. Lindstrom encouraged Pollock to obtain her financial counselor certification through the CUNA Financial Counseling Certification Program (FiCEP), and within one week she had six appointments.
“We realized the need was there, and it was greater than what I could handle alone,” she says.
That led to the formation of a “FET” or financial education team, with one counselor at each of the credit union’s four branches.
In addition to one-on-one financial counseling, Evergreen provides “Your Money 101,” a free workshop that shows participants where their money goes and provides personal finance tips and tools.
It also offers “Money Matters” financial education courses featuring 20-minute segments to help consumers understand and improve their financial behaviors. Courses are free and accessible via YouTube videos and printable worksheets.
Topics address building savings, managing and reducing debt, creating a budget, and—its most popular course—understanding credit scores.
“We stress the importance of having a goal and writing it down,” Pollock says, “so people know why they’re changing their spending habits and bettering their financial lives.”
Empathy is a crucial part of the process. “For many members who come in, it takes a lot to make that initial call,” she says. “We want to hear everyone’s story and see how we can help them.
“It’s not all doom and gloom,” Pollock continues. “Some people want to buy a house or set up an emergency fund on a tight budget. We use Your Money 101 to help them achieve their goal, whatever it is.”
The need for financial counseling and education has become greater since the start of the pandemic. In response, Evergreen offers online sessions for members, local businesses, and select employee groups via Skype.
“Our message during the pandemic is to spend wisely and save as much as you can,” she says. “We also advise people to make an individual budget for every month. June might look different than July, especially if state and federal aid goes away.”
‘We want to hear everyone’s story and see how we can help them.’
“The continuing economic impact of COVID-19 is changing personal finance,” adds Amanda Schumacher, who oversees FiCEP as CUNA’s manager of instructional design. “There hasn’t been a better time than now to dive into financial counseling so you can continue to help your members when they need it most.”
While assisting members is the primary motive, Evergreen’s financial counseling and education efforts have led to membership growth, Pollock says.
“If we gain a member because we’ve helped them, we probably have a member for life,” she says. “It also builds community relationships through which we can offer further assistance. We’ve partnered with a great attorney and a wonderful financial adviser who have been very beneficial to the program.”
Pollock cites a member who, due to Evergreen’s financial education programs, raised his credit score enough to secure an $83,000 home equity loan from the credit union to repair his home.
“He wasn’t a member when he took part in our lunch and learn program, but we treated him like a member,” she says. “And now he is a member.”
After meeting with Pollock several times, Teresa is now on stable financial footing.
“Financial counseling touches people in so many ways—it can change peoples’ lives,” she says. “I recommend that more credit unions make this investment in their members. Everyone who’s involved walks away feeling like they’ve done something great. It can and does change peoples’ lives.”