Boost Your Knowledge of Personal Finance

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A new website advises students on financial issues.
A new website advises students on financial issues.

Duke teaches its students a lot about pursuing their intellectual passions, but not much about managing their money.  The university launched in the spring a comprehensive personal finance program to help address that need.

A new website designed for undergraduates, graduate students and young alumni contains some basic information on budgeting, credit reports, taxes and identity theft, as well as fun things to do in Durham that don't cost a lot. Students who want more information can sign up for workshops on saving money, credit cards and insurance needs. 

"We have students from families of no means and ones from families of enormous means -- and everyone in between," said Stephen Nowicki, dean and vice provost for undergraduate education.  "These kinds of tools to help students become financially responsible can be valuable to the entire spectrum."

Senior Liz Jones, who started a Duke chapter of Smart Woman Securities, a not-for-profit focused on investment education for undergraduate women, is one of the students who helped with the site.  Jones said she has friends who after graduation wish they lived at home for a while to save money or who don't understand when and how to start paying off student loans.  

"We get such amazing educational opportunities here, like working in a lab side by side with professors, but how to manage your money isn't something that's taught in school," Jones said.  

The impetus for the initiative came from a young alumna who learned the hard way about living within her means.  Aeden Keffelew, who graduated in 2007 with a history major and music minor, emailed President Richard Brodhead to ask him to consider teaching students about finances.

"I will be turning 26 in three days, and I have just now learned the importance of saving and budgeting," wrote Keffelew, who after graduation job-hopped and started a graduate school program in New York before realizing she was in over her head financially.  

Keffelew's suggestion made its way to Irene Jasper, the director of the Office of Student Loans and a certified public accountant who had counseled seniors about their loan obligations and recognized the need for education. 

"I was seeing students graduating with $60,000 worth of loans," Jasper said. "Many hadn't thought before that point about what they were taking on. All the focus had been on getting through Duke." 

Jasper started putting out feelers across campus, and discovered a number of administrators, students and instructors were working on varying aspects of financial literacy. John Caccavale, executive director of the Duke Financial Economics Center, was just starting on something similar for students, so the two joined forces, inviting others to work on a consolidated approach for an audience that extended beyond financial aid recipients.  

Everyone needs some general knowledge about finances, such as explanations of credit reports or how to finance a car, said Kathy Sikes, an instructor in the Program in Education who has taught four seminar courses on financial literacy. Guest speakers have included a mortgage broker and car insurance agent.

"We all need this," Sikes said. "I learned a great deal from the Duke Credit Union presentations and I've been managing my own money for some time."  

Graduate students need help with these issues as well, said Irene Liu, a doctoral candidate in biology who worked on the site and organized several financial seminars on behalf of Women in Science and Engineering this year, including one on retirement planning. 

"Tax forms look so different depending on whether you're married, or have kids, and which state or country you come from, " said Liu, who learned about personal finance from her brother. "You have to do your own personal research, but there are basics like knowing what a deduction is."    

Jasper views the website as a good start for pointing students to some informative resources on the web, which without help can be "like entering a worm hole in the universe," she said. "We picked some of the best -- a good calculator and financial sites. " 

If students spend a little time on this now, they'll be so much better off later on, Jasper said.

"Saving $50 a month isn't so hard now, but can mean a lot five years from now," Jasper said.  "A few minutes now can pay off months down the road." 

Keffelew said she is thrilled with Duke's response and attended a student-run seminar on budgeting on April 9. She's happy to report she's in a more stable position financially. She took a job in admissions at a private school, found a studio apartment in Spanish Harlem and consolidated her student loans into one affordable payment.  

"Managing your finances is part of feeling like a capable citizen," she said. "It's hard when you're told your whole life to make your dreams happen, but sometimes you can make them happen on the side. Sometimes you just need to get a job."  

Click here to access the personal finance website.