Archive for March, 2011

No foolin’…April is Financial Literacy Month in Howard County!

In a rare mid-week post, we couldn’t resist taking a moment to celebrate April’s arrival as financial literacy month.  We know that there are many who made that long since abandoned New Year’s resolution to improve their finances months ago.  Never fear – this is the time to get refocused! 

First, let us highlight the AMAZING line up of events being offered by the Howard County library system this month.  Schools are off early tomorrow, why not pack up the kids and head over to Are You Cents-Able at Glenwood?  It’s a great opportunity to instill good money sense at an early age.  And, believe me, there’s nothing that will keep you sticking to a resolution like having your kid looking over your shoulder!

Saturday is the flagship financial education event for our community.  Founded by Council Chairman Calvin Ball 5 years ago, the Money Matters event is offering a host of great activities for kids and adults.  When was the last time you reviewed your credit report, set a savings goal, learned about financial aid or saving for college, had your tough tax questions answered, reviewed your insurance, asked questions about scams?  Yep, they’ve got an expert for that!  Plus the kids will enjoy a variety of crafts, activities and games at the event too.  New this year, the event is featuring a pilot VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) site.  For families that qualify , the VITA program offers FREE tax preparation and filing AND ensures that they are connected with a variety of available tax credits (details at:  Also at the event, families that may be struggling financially can check in to determine if they are eligible for help from the Community Action Council, receive financial and housing counseling from the Office on Aging, and learn about a variety of helpful housing assistance programs from the Department of Housing.    

During the event, at 11 o’clock a Joint Proclamation declaring it Financial Literacy Month in Howard County will be read and we will be joined by Comptroller Franchot and Congressman Cummings.  Also at that time, we’ll be presenting the award to our own winner of the Passport to Financial Literacy Reflections Essay Contest. 

The Money Matters event on Saturday is just the start of a great series of financial literacy programs for all ages during April.  On April 7th, noted columnist Michelle Singletary will join us at the East Columbia Library at 7 pm to discuss managing money in the new economy.  Other events will focus on saving for college, buying a car and a host of programs for kids and teens.  On April 14th our friend Robert Wasilewski, the D-I-Y Investor will help you Maximize Your Investing Power at the Glenwood Branch at 7PM.

So, what’s in your wallet?  Certainly with all these great (free!) programs around the county this month to help you develop the skills to better manage your finances, there’ll be MORE in your wallet at the end of April!

Know of any other great financial education programs we’ve missed????  We want to hear!


Categories: Uncategorized

Money Matters Event – Making a Difference!

“Income may feed people’s stomachs, but assets change their heads.” Michael Sherraden

This is so true.  Families struggling with economic instability are often consumed with the earn it and spend it cycle.  They often find it difficult to set financial goals, let alone save for the future.  Building assets through saving seems a completely insurmountable challenge for a few reasons. 

  • First, many low-income (and moderate-income) families truly have so little left over each month after their expenses. 
  • Second, our system penalizes the practice of saving.  (Yep – you read that right.  Fairly low asset threshholds are set, and if crossed the family loses certain public assistance benefits.)
  •  Third (given the first two factors) the opportunity to buy into the “American Dream” — be it college education, homeownership, or business ownership — seems so distant and impossible that individuals lose hope for their financial future. 

There are many communities around the nation that have created great models for fostering asset development.  The results of these programs suggest that there are successful ways to help families begin to build assets and move toward self-sufficiency.   For example,  families earning less than $45,000 often qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).   Eligible families receive, on average, a $2,000 tax credit in addition to their tax refund.   This amount can open doors for education, money down on a car to be able to get to a job, or security deposit and first month’s rent for a family struggling with housing.  Unfortunately, almost 2 million families miss out on taking advantage of the EITC each year – perhaps many in our community.  

Many communities have used the VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) Program to connect low-income families with the EITC.   The VITA program provides free tax preparation for families earning less than $49,000 by IRS certified preparers.  Unfortunately, Howard County is one of only a handful of counties in Maryland without a permanent VITA site.   We’re hoping that’s soon to change!   The IRS SPEC (Stakeholder Partnerships, Education, and Communication) Office in Baltimore is coming to Howard County to host a pilot VITA site on April 2nd at the East Columbia Library.

For the past 5 years, Councilman Calvin Ball hosts an annual community financial literacy event.  The program, entitled Money Matters:  A Fresh Start is scheduled for this Saturday from 10AM-1PM and will include the pilot VITA site this year along with a host of other activities for all ages.  (See below for more details on what you’ll find at the event!) 

Please spread the word about this pilot VITA site to your colleagues and friends in our community who work with families that earn less than $49,000.  (For details:   This program — and its power to connect people to tax credits that will start them on the path to asset building — is just one important step our community can take to help empower people to become economically independent. 

Other great stuff at the Money Matters event on Saturday April 2nd:  

  • Obtain your credit report and review it with an expert. 
  • Bring your tax return and have your questions answered (in English and Spanish). 
  • Ask your tough financial questions to an expert. 
  • Learn how to save for college and take advantage of financial aid. 
  • Get your housing and reverse mortgage questions answered. 
  • Understand whether you are covered with your insurance. 
  • Learn about your career potential.  
  • Understand how to protect yourself from scams.  And much more! 
  • Also – kids will have fun exploring a variety of games, activities and crafts available!   

For more information, go to


Categories: Uncategorized

Which came first…the stressed out chicken, or the indebted egg? And, who’s paying the price?

Recently I was a little frustrated by a colleague who discounted the connection between personal health and financial health. In reality, the two are inextricably connected and we need to recognize the direct impact that indebtedness and economic insecurity have on health issues.

I had been tossing around the idea of writing a post on the topic for a few weeks, but wasn’t convinced until last Monday evening. After a long day I decided to surf through our 687 television channels to find something to watch. Not surprisingly, 686 channels later I gave up and settled on a rebroadcast of the Dr. Oz show. That day he had joined forces with Suze Orman to demonstrate the correlation between debt and weight. He cited that people deeply in debt were twice as likely to struggle with obesity and the health issues that follow. It seemed the time was right for us to address the topic on the blog as well.

I won’t go into the details of the show or Suze’s advice (we’ll save Suze for another post). Let’s just put a few research findings on the table to start…

  • In a 2007 study by the American Psychological Association, 73% of respondents cited money as a significant source of stress in their life.
  • Financial worries have been cited as the leading cause of chronic stress, causing 25% of Americans to miss approximately 16 days a year of work.
  • Stress can lead to a number of unhealthy habits including smoking, consuming excessive amounts of caffeine, drinking, over-spending, and obesity.

The challenge becomes where to start…money troubles and health troubles seem to be circular – a “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” conundrum. We’ll delve into just a few examples.


For instance, an average smoker might spend $1,200-$1,500 per year on cigarettes. For a low- or moderate-income family, this expense can drive them further into debt and may wipe out their opportunity to save. This financial tension leads to ever increasing stress and makes the process of trying to quit smoking even more difficult. And, of course, the habit increases the likelihood of suffering from cancer, heart disease, stroke, pulmonary disease and a host of other costly and devastating illnesses.


Studies have shown that in many people, the act of making a purchase releases serotonin in the brain giving the feeling of euphoria or a “high”. People under stress, including stress resulting from debt or economic uncertainty, crave that rush and can often spend themselves further into trouble. Financial stress is at its height for individuals who have lost their job, have significant debt, or do not have health insurance. Stress can be linked to a number of conditions including ulcers, migraines, back pain, anxiety, depression, and heart attacks.


The connection between economic insecurity and weight/nutrition is much more complex and involves not only the connection between financial stress and weight, but also issues of access and psychology.

For years our government has subsidized farmers producing crops that become the ingredients for low cost, high calorie foods with little nutrition. For families in economic crisis, these are the foods that fit in their budget. Additionally, for individuals struggling with limited transportation options, these are the foods that are readily available at local convenience stores when a supermarket is out of reach.

Further, workers struggling to achieve self-sufficiency are often working non-traditional hours or multiple jobs. This leads to an increased reliance on fast food and convenience foods which are again, cheap, provide little nutrition and are highly caloric.

In addition to access issues, the psychological factors behind our food habits link economic insecurity with over-eating and obesity. For many of us, our childhood woes were often soothed with sweets. Our images of holidays and celebrations often revolve around a dinner table. No doubt, food (and usually unhealthy food) is tied to our vision of happiness. As a result, many people use food as a way to “fill their emotional tank” when they are stressed – and as the statistics show, people are stressed about money. Not surprisingly then, studies suggest a deep correlation between obesity and financial distress.

The impacts of being over-weight or obese are far reaching. A host of health issues can be tied to weight including:

  • Heart disease and stroke.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Diabetes.
  • Cancer.
  • Breathing problems, such as sleep apnea and asthma and many more.

Beyond the health issues, people who struggle with obesity face many other challenges. Women classified as obese earn, on average, 6% less in wages. ( Expenses are also often higher for insurance, healthcare costs, etc.

There are so many other issues we haven’t even touched on here that link economic crises to personal health. Availability of insurance, preventive care, quality health care providers, healthy homes, fitness resources, are just a few of the other factors that connect our financial and physical health. To be sure, as we address the opportunities to move families from economic insecurity to self-sufficiency, we will be making a positive impact on both their financial and physical health.

Categories: Uncategorized

Headline hooey…

Seems time to celebrate if you believed the headlines this week:

“Families Slice Debt To Lowest In 6 Years”. (Wall Street Journal)
“Households Grow 2.1 Trillion Richer”  (CNN Money)

You just can’t help but feel all warm and fuzzy inside with a headline like that, right?  Hmmm — we’re skeptical.  We all know that despite some signs of recovery in the economy, the day to day struggles for consumers haven’t really eased up much.  Reading between the lines offered what was actually pretty dismal news – and some alarming predictions.  So what gives you ask?

First off, stock performance has been pretty positive lately so portfolio values have grown — thus driving up the household asset values.  Remember though, this doesn’t necessarily signal a change in savings behavior just the benefit of riding the generally upward trend in the market.  And, these gains could quickly be lost if the market derails with turbulence in the middle east, rising commodity prices, or any number of other potential crises.

Well, even if asset growth isn’t directly tied to consumer savings behavior, we’re still experiencing a reduction in household debt, right?  Not so fast on that one either.  The household debt numbers are going down, but not because consumers are choosing to use their extra cash to pay down their bills.  Rather, debts are going down as a result of real estate short sales and foreclosures and the charging-off of significant amounts of credit card debt.   Yes, less debt all right — with a healthy helping of lower credit ratings for consumers.   Celebrating yet?

The final prediction in the Wall Street Journal article suggested that with all this good news, we could expect to see “better consumer spending” in 2011.   I guess I can agree that we’ll be spending more… $73 dollars to fill up the tank this week.  Food prices will rise too, no doubt.   I’m not sure I would paint this as positive news, though.   I wonder how the press will make rosy headlines from that news.  Any ideas?

Categories: Uncategorized

Were you born to be a spender???

Papa was a…  nope, not a rolling stone — he was a psychology major and has always been fascinated by human behavior.   The questions of nature versus nurture, and conditioned reflexes, were regular dinner conversation fodder growing up — and accented by the differences in the two kids around table.  There’s some amount of family lore that even suggests there may have been a bell sounded when the mashed peas were set on the high chair tray…  Perhaps this explains my reaction to Taco BELL and Onion RINGS?

Dad started off firmly entrenched in the belief that your personality and behavior were the product of your environment — he was a “nurture” guy.   So I was always fascinated when he would tell the tale of how he came to shift his philosophy.   He would describe the differences between us kids during my mother’s pregnancies.   Child #2 spent a good deal of the 9 months doing some combination of kick-boxing and tae bo, in stark contrast to the older, calmer child.   This pattern continued throughout the childhood years with child #2 jumping, crashing and galloping through childhood.   The differences in the two kids before birth and the corrolation with later behaviors convinced him that there was a whole lot more “nature” that contributed to personality and behavior than he had originally believed. 

I think about this lesson often when I reflect on people’s financial behaviors.   The ways we spend and save are part of a complicated mix of factors influenced by your financial knowledge and skills, your family history, social pressures and influences, emotional factors, and yes…nature.   There are some parts of our money behaviors that were wired at birth.    We all know folks (siblings, kids, friends) who have very similar environments and backgrounds but handle money very differently.  One may be a disciplined saver with clear financial goals and a sound plan to achieve them.  And despite all their environmental similarities, the other may have 12 pairs of red ballet flats in their closet, but can’t live without just one more. 

At makingCHANGE we spend a lot of time thinking about WHY two people in very similar environments can have such different financial behaviors.  We can teach skills needed for financial success and see an immediate change for some, while others (even those that recognize that their own habits prevent them from being successful) never seem able to put the skills and knowledge into action. 

As you think about your own spending behaviors, you might find it interesting to ask yourself a few reflective questions…

  • Are my credit card balances more than my bank balance?
  • Am I saving enough for retirement?
  • Could I afford it if my car broke down or I ended up in the hospital tomorrow?
  • How did I choose the credit cards in my wallet?  Did I research the best choices, match a card to my spending habits, or choose a card based on the t-shirt they were giving away?
  • How am I different than my siblings when it comes to money?
  • Do I shop for “fun”?
  • Do I feel happy when I make a purchase?
  • When I get home after shopping, do I sometimes feel guilty?
  • Do I have purchases with the tags still on?
  • How do my closest friends handle money?
  • How well do my parents handle money?
  • As I child, did my parents encourage saving?
  • When I was growing up, did I receive an allowance?  Did my parents have rules about how I could spend it?

The answers may help you better understand yourself as a spender and saver help you unlock your potential for financial success!

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