Last week, I criticized the McDonald’s corporation for producing a website and a toolkit, aimed at their employees, designed to help those employees tackle the financial obstacles they are most likely to face. My first point was that financial literacy education hasn’t been proven to help the most needy, and in some studies, has been shown to be detrimental. My second point was that as far as financial literacy education goes, McDonald’s and the organizations that helped the company design the program don’t seem to understand some of the difficulties their audience faces.
I’ve also commented on the prevalence of financial literacy programs funded by the banking industry. In the example from McDonald’s, VISA was involved with the project to support its pay card — a debit card and account replacing paychecks and direct deposit. It might come as a surprise that I worked with a bank earlier this year to design and produce materials for a financial education series.
PNC is a regional bank, based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with branches prominent on the east coast of the United States. PNC Bank offers retail banking services: the usual checking, savings, money market accounts, consumer loans, and mortgages, all products offered by typical retail banks. Like many retail banks, PNC also offers asset management and business banking.
The bank, like the rest of the financial industry, benefits when more customers take advantage of their services. There may be some exceptions: banks only want enough depositors to satisfy regulatory requirements because they’d rather borrow from the government than from customers, and providing service to some customers can cost the banks money, for example. For the most part, the wider the pool of potential customers, the better. To widen that pool, banks want more customers to understand what they can offer, and one way to do that is through educational endeavors.
Banks can develop financial literacy resources and fill two needs. They can use education to increase their customer base and they can look like “good guys” doing it.
This project with PNC Bank, a financial education series in which I am participating, targets a different demographic than the McDonald’s attempt. In this particular instance, the reach of the McDonald’s campaign is much broader, and thanks to some ridiculous line items in the budget, has received wide media attention. PNC’s project, the PNC Achievement Sessions, will not receive such wide notoriety. It does, however, address some of the core problems faced by those who might already be customers of PNC or potential customers.
The target is definitely within a middle class demographic. The audience seems to be those already comfortable with the idea of working with the traditional financial industry and those who already know they need to do more to achieve their financial goals. This is not basic financial literacy, a concept that all too often fails in schools. The effort approaches consumer education with tools and resources helpful for handling more than just the basics of money.
Getting involved with the PNC Achievement Sessions
At the beginning of the year, I started working with PNC and their agency to develop the material for a new interactive website to fulfill their goal of consumer education. The project’s mission is for the audience “to have the knowledge and confidence to manage [their] money.”
The website would eventually become the PNC Achievement Sessions. Among the material developed were video scripts, and a few months ago, I spent two days in New York City with a production company taping the videos. Also involved in the project were Anna Newell Jones from And Then She Saved, David Ning from MoneyNing and Galia Gichon from Down to Earth Finance. Between the on-camera “talent,” the production company, and the agency for PNC, it was an incredibly professional team, and it was an enjoyable experience for me.
My contributions resulted in two videos and accompanying material. I handled two of the most complex topics in the series: getting the mortgage you want and credit score myths and facts. I can’t bear to watch myself, but reviews from family and friends have been very good. I’m still waiting for the Rotten Tomatoes review. Luckily, if you aren’t pleased with my work, PNC is taking suggestions for additions to the team for future sessions.
All six videos are presented alongside quizzes, static information, a challenge which can be shared through social media, and links to other resources, particularly those provided by the on-camera financial experts, all excellent writers.
Here is the full list of sessions available on PNC’s website today:
- The Spending Diet, with Anna Newell Jones
- Creative Ways to Build Your Emergency Fund, with David Ning
- Get More Comfortable With Investing, with Galia Gichon
- Maximize Your Retirement Savings, with Galia Gichon
- Getting the Mortgage You Want, with Luke Landes
- Credit Score Myths & Facts, with Luke Landes
The videos are also available on YouTube, but the have the best effect when viewed within the context of the PNC Achievement Sessions website.
I’ve written so much about how the typical approaches to financial literacy fail. Does it make sense for me to participate in this type of consumer education? Yes.
Consumers are not being force-fed. When banks offer programs to elementary and secondary schools, they’re taking time away from the core curriculum. The students don’t want to be there. Banks are outsiders in the educational environment, and students will not be engaged in the material enough for any lessons to stick.
Efforts like the PNC Achievement Sessions are much different than financial literacy programs. Consumer education speaks to adults, and in particular, adults who seek the information out. They want to learn and feel invested in the information and the potential for improved financial situations.
The demographic is appropriate. When a family is concerned the most with fulfilling the lowest level of needs within Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, like food, water, and shelter, education becomes a much lower priority, if a priority at all. This is a tough audience to teach, because all lessons generate a response like, “That’s great, but right now I’m just trying to feed my family.” With kids working jobs to help the household just get by, there’s little time for anything that’s not a job, and that includes gaining practice with new skills that could lead to a better job sometime in the future.
On the other hand, consumer financial education like the PNC Achievement Sessions targets an audience that is ready and willing to move forward with their financial skills. They are eager to prioritize their future, because their present is relatively secure. An emergency fund, for example, is a pie-in-the-sky wish for a family barely living paycheck to paycheck, but for a household that is able or just about able to save money every month, the emergency fund seems like an achievable reality, as does investing for the future, buying a house, and eventually retiring.
All that being said, PNC is still a bank, and thus any material endeavor that costs the bank money, other than back-office operations, should do something to increase revenue for the company. Shareholders wouldn’t have it any other way.
There’s no mistaking that PNC, through creating the Achievement Sessions, would like the project to have several results other than the stated mission. First, the bank would like for its current customers to take better advantage of the services the bank provides. Second, PNC hopes the Achievement Sessions will bring new customers to the bank. Third, the company wants to increase awareness among the public of the PNC brand, and for it to be a positive recognition: education is a much better reason to be newsworthy than a scandal.
I do not personally have an account at PNC Bank, though there is a branch located in my local supermarket. I always encourage bank shoppers to look at fees and customer service. PNC does offer a free checking account that could be worth a look, so if you’re in the market for free checking from a branch and are located with a PNC branch within a convenient proximity, take a look.
Check out the PNC Achievement Sessions. I’d love to hear your feedback. I’m including one of the videos in this article, but I suggest viewing the bank’s website, watching more videos, taking the quizzes, and participating in the challenges. If you’re so inclined, offer suggestions to the bank for topics and experts to be featured in future sessions. If you have any feedback for me, please feel free to share it here.