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Marine Credit Union Senior Loan Officer Zach Hancock (middle) receives a Governor's Financial Literacy Award from Gov. Tony Evers and First Lady Kathy Evers for the financial empowerment course he teaches at La Crosse County Jail in Wisconsin.

Financial empowerment for a ‘forgotten audience’

Marine Credit Union’s Zach Hancock provides financial education for incarcerated people.

July 11, 2023

Zach Hancock believes people aren’t defined by their titles.

So when the Marine Credit Union senior loan officer and certified Consumer Financial Protection Bureau financial coach wanted to improve the financial well-being of incarcerated individuals, he set out to get it done.

“Around November 2020, I was working with one of our members who just got out of a six- or seven-year incarceration period,” Hancock says. “His credit started in the low to mid 500s and, in a year, we were able to raise his credit score almost 100 points.

“It got me thinking about these people and their resources,” he continues. “Just because you've been to jail doesn't make you a bad person. I wanted to find a way to help them.”

Rather than wait for someone else to do it, Hancock told leaders at the $1 billion asset credit union in La Crosse, Wis., that he wanted to give struggling people the resources, groundwork, and support they need.

Marine Credit Union Foundation Director of Financial Education Majel Hein put him in contact with Western Technical College’s Project Proven, which teaches courses that help “justice-involved individuals transition to the community with career and educational opportunities.”

The resulting financial empowerment course, which Hancock volunteers to teach at the La Crosse County Jail, earned him a 2022 Governor’s Financial Literacy Award. The awards, presented by Gov. Tony Evers and First Lady Kathy Evers, recognize individuals and organizations for elevating the financial literacy, capability, and financial inclusion of Wisconsin’s residents.

“I was really honored,” Hancock says, crediting the passion of his teammates at Marine Credit Union and Project Proven.

His advice for those who want to pursue projects outside of their normal realm: “If you see something you're passionate about, go for it. Don't let other people define you.”

The five- to six-week course ends with inmates receiving “credit for prior learning” in personal finance.

Hancock “is serving an audience often forgotten,” Hein says. “He’s providing compassionate education and, more importantly, hope to advance and change lives.”

“Zach brings a fresh perspective,” adds Willa MacKenzie, Western Technical College adult basic education teacher. “The stories of financial experiences he shares provide guidance to students who may have had financial barriers in their past.”

Hancock didn’t take a direct path to financial education. The Mindoro, Wis., native served one term in the Marine Corps before returning to Wisconsin to get a paralegal degree from Western Technical. Upon starting at Marine Credit Union, he found a passion for serving underserved individuals.

“A lot of people come to the course not knowing what to expect, but they’re eager to learn,” Hancock says. “They’re there to better themselves.”

Rather than lecture, the course allows Hancock and the students to build relationships, have conversations, and open up about personal finance stories.

The course starts with a wheel that includes spiritual, environmental, occupational, physical, mental, and financial wellness. Hancock asks the students, “Are there any spots here that finances don’t touch?”

After agreeing that finances touch every part of life, they define their money personalities.

Once the students explore these issues and the big picture, they look at how to improve their financial wellness. Hancock takes a long-term approach, avoiding the word “budget” in favor of creating a “spending plan.”

“Instead of telling me what I can't do, it’s ‘this is what we're going to do,’” Hancock says, comparing it to an unrealistic diet. “If it’s too strict, you're going to fail and give up.”

The class also tackles credit, interest rates, home ownership versus renting, and the true cost of car ownership. It goes beyond the sticker price to include total interest, insurance, gas, maintenance costs, and registration.

Near the end of the course, students sign credit release forms and Hancock pulls their credit reports and any liens or judgements against them. They study these and start working toward a better financial future.

“Some students reach out to me when they get out, wanting to continue that education and pursue some of the ideas we had,” Hancock says. “They're taking that opportunity to better themselves. It’s a great journey to watch.”