Hey, Little Spenders
Meet Bill and Penny, community banking’s most beloved power couple.
As the endearing mascots for First Community Bank of Mercersburg (formerly The First National Bank of Mercersburg), Bill, as in “Dollar,” and Penny, as in Abe Lincoln’s profile shot, are a big draw on the Sesame Street circuit.
The duo attracts pats, hugs and high-fives from an adoring, pint-sized crowd throughout farm-rich Franklin County, birthplace of our 15th U.S. president, James Buchanan.
Penny and Bill launched their career as marchers in Franklin County’s many small-town parades but have segued into a home-grown show business career as adult-sized teaching tools in the classroom. The spongy green rectangle with the black gloved hands and the shiny copper-tinted orb with saucer-sized white eyes are a money-based spin on show-and-tell for the littlest spenders.
As stars of the bank’s “Teach Children to Save” program, Bill, Penny and other bank volunteers instruct tots through teen-agers in the importance of saving and spending smart. Beginning with the basics, such as the color and worth of a penny, a nickel, a dime and a quarter, the program presents each grade with an age-appropriate curriculum. High schoolers are taught more complex financial lessons, such as how to save for college, a car, and retirement.
The lesson plans, tailored for grades kindergarten through 12, abandon dull, dry dissertations about interest rates, balance sheets and the Federal Reserve. Bank volunteers dance with the children, read books and involve the students through every step of the process.
In developing the lesson plans, Michele Ford, the bank’s Senior Operations Officer, tweaked the national ABA curriculum “and made it our own,” she explained. Although she hasn’t worn the “money” costume in years, she still remains active in mentoring and training other volunteer teachers.
Ford said the bank reaches about 1,000 students a year through the classes, and has done so for the past six years. At times, they will teach an entire student body all at once in one massive auditorium or library; at other schools, they will travel from classroom to classroom and, with apologies to Jerry Maguire, “show kids the money.”
Their presentation is part game show, part talk show, and all fun with finances, with ample opportunity for volunteerism and audience participation.
For example, for the younger pupils, the bank gives each child a pair of paddles. One reads “Wants,” the other, “Needs.” Then the children raise the paddles in turn to help them distinguish between necessities and luxuries.
In fifth grade, bank volunteers will ask the tween-ers, “What are you saving for?”
Inevitably, the kids will reply, “A car.” Then the class talks about what a car costs, and what options they want on the car. Even at the age of 10, the kids know about fuzzy steering wheels and fancy rims, Ford said. They talk about how much they must save to get all the bells and whistles, and then talk about the cost of insurance, the need for gas, the unrelenting demand for ongoing maintenance, and more.
Another grade’s lesson involves running a lemonade stand, focusing on inventory, expenses, pricing and other key ingredients to opening a sole proprietorship.
In one scenario, bank volunteers ask student volunteers to come to the front of the class. They give each child $10 which they can spend at a pretend mall. What should they buy? Then the class discusses their choices. Did Austin need to spend $5 for ice cream? Does Riley have enough for a movie and popcorn?
The classmates also discuss how to do things in a greener way. One class, saving for a hamster, discussed using old recycled newspaper, re-purposing old bowls, and pouring environmentally savvy rain water in place of bottled water, plastic or Styrofoam.
Another lesson asks the kids, “How much do YOU cost?” If the children were living independently, the class shows them how much they would have to spend to live on their own.
In the older grades, financial advisors actually come in to teach the teens about 401 (K)s. They pass out blank checks and teach kids how to write checks properly and how to save for college.
They also ask kids what their moms and dads say about money, such as “Money doesn’t grow on trees.” “Money can’t buy happiness.” “A penny saved is a penny earned.” Or “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” Every now and then, they hear a few refreshingly honest over-shares from unfiltered little mouths.
In recent years, the popularity of the classes has grown as word has spread. So many schools ask the bank’s teachers to visit that the bank has difficulty fulfilling every request.
Bank officials are careful to ensure that their efforts are not an overt marketing pitch to kids. No brand-specific material is left behind, except for a logo-bearing piggy bank in each class so children can save for something of their choice as the culmination to a year-long saving project. Some classes have given their savings to a nonprofit, bought a class pet, or thrown a party. One class donated to an animal shelter, another to Haiti, and another bought books for the library.
The bankers emphasize: “This is not your lunch money.”
If you find money, put it in the class piggy bank (and tell your parents, of course), the bankers encourage the children. The project not only teaches savings, but builds teamwork as kids save together for a shared goal. Kids often write to tell bank leaders what they saved for.
Mercersburg’s money mentors also go to the Chambersburg Career and Technical School and tailor the lesson to that audience. Most of those teens may not be saving for college but will enter the workforce soon, so they talk about 401 (K)s, benefits, budgets, checking accounts, and savings.
To encourage participation, the bankers give students who answer questions correctly dollar coins, or when state-specific quarters were all the rage, the most coveted quarters were handed out.
“We make it very interactive, and we make it so they want to participate and pay attention,” Ford said.
The bank also helps with the region’s migrant summer school. Chambersburg provides added help to students who identify English as their second language. Bank volunteers help teach the summer school and attend the Parents’ Night.
Of her team of money mentors, she said, “They all love it, and they do a wonderful job.”
Bob Fignar, the bank’s President and CEO, and a Certified Financial Planner, said of the instruction, “It is desperately needed. (Young students) are not being educated to the extent they should be.”
He realizes the “Teach Children to Save” program is not going to convert every child into a financial whiz kid, but it’s “a first step.”
For some, the class may ignite a desire to follow up with business courses or pursue a business major.
Fignar’s son is 15, almost 16, and talking about buying a car. His younger child is 12.
He knows that not all teens and pre-teens conform to the “instant gratification”-seeker stereotype.
Kids today are not all the same, he noted. Some are very conservative and are savers.
“We’re happy to help to the extent we are able,” Fignar said.
The importance of financial literacy has been documented in numerous studies and is causing a surge of support for required instruction among the states.
April 2015 has been declared as “Financial Literacy Month” in Pennsylvania, and the Commonwealth has taken some steps to encourage – although not require – financial literacy instruction. Several bills have been introduced to achieve that end.
A 2010 bill that became law directed the Department of Education to provide educators with curriculum materials and other resources on economic education and personal financial literacy. It also established a task force to assess the trends and needs in economic education and personal finance.
The Pennsylvania Department of Education joined the Pennsylvania Department of Banking in a April 2013 report called “Economic and Personal Finance Education in Pennsylvania” and found that only about 7.8 percent of the Commonwealth’s 500 school districts – 38 of 500 school districts – require students to take a course in personal finance before graduation.
In the 2015-2016 session, Sen. Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia) has introduced Senate Resolution 22, which, if passed, will direct the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee to study the costs of financial instruction. Williams also sponsored Senate Bill 101, which establishes the Personal Finance Education Fund and requires the development of stand-alone Kindergarten through grade 12 academic standards for personal finance, to include money management, earning income, borrowing money, financial services, risk management, and saving and investing.
According to a recent column by a Harrisburg-area professor published in the Harrisburg Patriot News, only 17 states currently require a financial literacy course in the U.S.
While efforts to teach personal finance are fragmented and inconsistent, studies also show that those efforts pay off.
That is why the bank based in Mercersburg has focused on teaching dollars and sense to the smallest savers. Bank leaders know much about growing their own value.
The bank now has six branches, including its central location on South Main Street in Mercersburg, and with locations in Fort Loudon, Greencastle, and Chambersburg. Founded in 1908, the bank filed to change from a national bank to a community bank last year, and its request became effective on December 15, 2014.
That is the latest capstone to an impressive and ongoing life story, which began in the parlor of the home of a prominent doctor and his wife at the turn of the 20th century. The bank celebrated reaching its $100-million-in-assets milestone in 2002. It now has approximately $170 million in assets and a full-service brokerage, along with insurance and trust services.
The child-friendly classes are all part of offering first-class service to the residents of the region, which is set among historic Federal-style brick buildings and bordered by the Mason-Dixon Line to the south.
For program participants, little learners discover that “Money talks.” With time and teaching, they may have the know-how to prevent it from saying only “Good-bye.”
This Community Bank Profile can be found featured in the May 2015 issue of Transactions. Not a subscriber? Visit the Transactions page on this website or call PACB at 717-231-7447 to start receiving the magazine.