According to area banks and credit unions, springtime is a good time to not only clean up around the house, but to take inventory of your finances and clean up your credit too.
"Taking the first step in anything is hard (like dieting and exercise), and it certainly holds true when it comes to financial health," writes Sharon Lechter, member of the President's Advisory Council on Financial Literacy in a Financial Literacy Month blog post.
Money Management International and other financial institutions and financial literacy advocates are promoting April as "Financial Literacy Month." Together, they're offering loads of free online tools, literature and in-person classes and counseling to help people set good financial goals, learn how to manage a budget, and spend and manage credit wisely and responsibly.
Lechter and other experts advise that the first step to financial health and freedom is to let go of your fiscal fears and commit to change and better money management habits.
For families, it's important to start educating children and talk to them about money as early as possible.
In Burlington, Vt., Champlain College's Center for Financial Literacy, since 2013 has used national data to grade all 50 states and the District of Columbia on their efforts to produce financially literate high school graduates. According to its 2015 National Report Card, 26 states received grades of C, D or F. Vermont was given a "D," and Massachusetts was given an "F," for offering little to no opportunities for students to experience financial literacy instruction in school.
To help backfill the lack of school-based courses in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, Maureen Phillips, who has a 35-year career in banking, now serves as Greylock Federal Credit Union's member financial education program coordinator. She regularly visits a range of institutions, from grade schools to adult learning centers, to teach financial literacy workshops.
"When I'm in schools, often the person who's saying, 'Really? I didn't know that,' is the teacher. A lot of the teachers don't know or aren't comfortable teaching this subject," Phillips said.
Greylock has developed a financial wellness initiative, which includes a free in-person educational series of classes, as well as online webinars, to help re-teach the basics of finance management to adults, as well as a new course called "Value of a Dollar: Teaching Your Children About Money" series for families with children.
Phillips said while there's now a "really good push" to establish some good financial literacy classes in Massachusetts high schools, the credit union has found itself focused on "teaching the basics: balancing a checkbook, using a debit card, balancing and maintaining a good credit score."
"We just don't see it being taught anymore. The basic tenets of saving and investing has kind of gone away," she said.
At the Vermont credit union, VSECU, its advisers are doing the same for its members by offering this month a new, free Financial Literacy Webinar Series. Class titles in the series range from "Stop Spending Everything you Earn — How to Budget and Save" to "The Path to a Great Credit Score."
Simeon Chapin, VSECU's director of community and social development, said the credit union decided to offer the webinars as an alternative to in-person events to make financial education opportunities more accessible. Like Greylock, VSECU also brings school groups into its branches to participate in financial workshops that give students a budget to practice managing.
"It's about having an idea of the inflow and outflow of your money and where's it's going," he said. "Once you're able to see that and how you're spending, you're able to make more conscious choices about what you're doing with you money. When you do that, then you're more empowered to make your money do what you want it to do."
Chapin knows from experience.
"Many people are living month to month, as I was living at one point. Thinking about the way you use your money is really important," he said.
In addition to classes, many of the region's banks, credit unions and other financial institutions have staff trained to offer a variety of options, strategies and products to help members better manage their money. This includes debt management services, credit and loan counseling; free financial literacy materials, including worksheets and step-by-step budget guides; online calculators to manage loans, mortgages, and most importantly, in-person support so that you don't have to do it alone. Some colleges, libraries, and community organizations also offer these kinds of staff and services.
Chapin said, "The first thing that I would tell somebody is that this is a long game and you've got to start somewhere. Take that first step, whatever that might be for you, and put it into action. And when that's comfortable, take another step."
Looking for more information? Try one of these resources to get you started on the path to making better financial decisions:
Thirty steps to financial wellness: financialliteracymonth.com/30Steps
VSECU: vsecu.com/personal/member-programs--resources/financial-education or 1-800-371-5162
Greylock Federal Credit Union: greylock.org/greylock-life/financial-wellness.html or 1-800-207-5555
Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity money management programs: berkshirehabitat.org/services/building-for-tomorrow or 413-442-3181
Lee Bank's Money Island game for kids: leebank.moneyisland.com
MountainOne's Money101 program: mountainone.com/content/community
NBT Bank STRIVE financial literacy program: nbtbank.com/strive
Massachusetts JumpStart Coalition for financial literacy education: majumpstart.org
Massachusetts Task Force on Financial Literacy: mass.gov/treasury/empowerment/finlit/taskforce
BROC Community Action in Southwestern Vermont: broc.org or 802-447-7515 or 802-775-0878
Financial literacy in Vermont: vermonttreasurer.gov/financial-literacy
Champlain College Center for Financial Literacy: champlain.edu/centers-of-excellence/center-for-financial-literacy