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Top Money Basics Young Adults Need to Succeed

Loryll Nicolaisen

Young adults across the nation are settling into their freshman year of college. These undergraduates have a lot to learn, both inside and outside the classroom, and learning to make smart money choices now can go a long way in establishing a successful financial life. We interviewed Dean Obenauer, assistant director of financial aid for financial literacy at Creighton University, about the money basics these young men and women need most.

Q. What money basics are young adults most lacking?


A. The majority of individual counseling sessions and group seminars focus on the question, “When it comes to handling money, what should I be thinking about?” I think most students have the basics down, but may not know how to pull them all together to set goals and make plans. I explain to students that personal finance is just that — it’s personal, and no two people handle their money in the same way. It’s not rocket science, but it does take a little time to connect the dots. I think a good place to start discussion is with a spending plan (the word budget may sound like a dirty word) as the foundation. It’s important to write it down, use an app, software, or whatever works so that you know where your money goes.

Like everything in life, personal finance involves making hard choices at times. It is so important to save something, save anything, just save, whether it’s a few dollars a week, loose change or anything to start the habit of regular saving.

From there we go into responsible credit card use, driving home the point that a credit limit is not extra income. If you don’t have the money, don’t buy it. It is so important to your future finances to start out on the right foot to build a good credit history and credit score. Protecting personal information (avoiding identity theft) is another major point that students need to be aware of. And lastly, responsible student loan borrowing is a part of every conversation. Just because a student is offered student loans doesn’t mean they need to accept the entire amount. “Borrow only what you need” is a common theme stressed over and over. So how does a student know how much they need? By sitting down and mapping out a budget! It is OK for students to live frugally while in school so that they can live like a professional after they graduate.

These are just a few of the basic points that I think students need to be aware of which will help prepare them to handle more complex issues later, such as investing, purchasing a car or home, or retirement planning.

Q. What can universities do to set young adults on the right path to financial responsibility? Should schools have any responsibility for educating students about personal finance?

A. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to financial literacy. There are many options depending on available resources. If there is an effective newsletter, brochure or Listserv, a column or quick tips on finances could be included on a regular basis. Financial awareness and education could be a part of new-student orientation or the freshman year experience program. Personal finance classes could be offered as an elective. Conducting educational seminars or bringing in outside speakers are options. Training students to be peer counselors can be very effective when students meet with students. Online learning modules are available for students to access on their own timeframe. Any of these approaches or a combination can be used to start or expand a financial literacy program. Again, there is no one-size-fits-all, as long as colleges and universities just do something!


Although financial literacy is not required by law, it is recommended in light of the recent economic crisis. It makes sense for schools to be proactive in helping students be more prepared for the real world. Creighton University decided financial literacy is a service we owed to our students and created a position in the Financial Aid Office with the primary focus of helping students develop skills and behaviors to help manage their money while in school and after graduation. This is primarily achieved through individual counseling, referrals, group seminars and development of online resources.

Financial literacy can sound a little intimidating, so calling it something different may sound a little more personal. We refer to it as a financial fitness program. We all know there are ways to take better care of ourselves, including making better financial decisions. By providing resources on campus for those who feel they should “tone up” a bit, or even if they think they are in good shape but want to get into better shape, a personal finance coach is available to provide training tips and positive reinforcement to help build knowledge, skills and confidence to manage money.

Dean Obenauer, MPA, AFC® is assistant director of financial aid for financial literacy at Creighton University.