Navigating the modern financial world can be a difficult chore for anybody, but for somebody who has never even had a bank account before, money matters may seem like an entirely foreign world – and an intimidating one.
Park Side Federal Credit Union in Whitefish and Community Action Partnership (CAP) in Kalispell have partnered for the last three years in sponsoring a financial literacy course aimed at residents who have little to no experience with financial institutions, along with others who have experience but have run into money struggles.
Organizers say the 12-week course, called Free to Choo$e, gives participants the tools and skills necessary to build a sound financial future, even if they’ve had troubles in the past. Course instructor Claudine Johnson of CAP said the program attracts a wide range of people.
“You have those who have never had a savings or checking account, people who have no experience in any financial setting at all,” Johnson said. “You have others who are just trying to understand consumer protection laws or who are trying to buy their first house.”
Classes for the current winter session, which ends on April 7, are being held at Faith Free Lutheran Church in Kalispell every Thursday. Spring and fall sessions will also be offered. The cost is $60, or $5 per week, for individuals and double for families, a fee that includes daycare services and dinners. Class sizes are limited to about 25. All ages are welcome, with youth financial courses available.
Angie Meehan, marketing director for Park Side Federal Credit Union, said statistics show that participants who complete the program go on to greatly improve their credit scores and overall financial situations. The course’s graduation rate is 97 percent, she said, and the classes fill up every time.
“There’s just so many regulations and things changing in our financial world, we try to make sure they’re kept up to date,” Meehan said.
Though Johnson is the head instructor, Park Side representatives are available to answer questions. The atmosphere is inviting, Meehan said, which encourages active participation.
“Once we start the class, things seem to get really personal where people start to get comfortable in the class and ask questions that they wouldn’t generally walk into a financial institution and ask,” Meehan said. “We like to build a relationship and make them more comfortable.”
Johnson said Free to Choo$e grew out of a community needs assessment. The economic downturn left a portion of Northwest Montana’s middle-class jobless and, in some cases, homeless. Some of the program’s participants, Johnson said, are without stable homes.
“You have varying degrees of knowledge there; not college education, but financial education,” Johnson said.
An insurance tutorial has been added to the course, with local insurance agents donating their time and helping write the curriculum, Johnson said. Also, participants track their spending for 10 weeks in what Johnson calls “hands-on budgeting.”
“It can be eye opening, let me tell you,” Johnson said.
Graduates are able to open checking and savings accounts with Park Side, regardless of banking history. If they choose, they can take on a financial mentor and open a $300 line of credit at Park Side. Meehan said it’s inspiring to see people who have faced dire financial situations now moving forward with renewed confidence.
“They have tools they can use now,” Meehan said. “It’s actually been a very moving and touching course for a lot of folks in the valley, and for us. It’s very rewarding to be able to help.”
For more information or if interested in registering for the upcoming spring course, contact Park Side Federal Credit Union at (406) 862-2642 or Community Action Partnership at (406) 752-6565.
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