Are graduating students prepared to handle their personal finances? Andrew Pennock, an associate professor of public policy at the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, wants to ensure they are. He offers a yearly financial wellness workshop, which he conducts in addition to his usual teaching workload.
On March 30, around 70 UVA students, both graduates and undergraduates, attended his latest workshop. In addition to financial skills, the workshop had a unique emphasis. At a university where students are encouraged to be leaders inside and outside of the classroom, participants were asked to consider how to spend in line with their values.
“Personal finance is a life skill that allows you to make intentional choices that reflect your values,” Pennock said. “That’s true of both your spending and your giving.”
Pennock began the workshop in 2017 when, while teaching his state politics class at the Batten School, he briefly compared state budgets to personal budgets. Upon sensing confusion, he probed and discovered most students had never seen a budget. This led Pennock, who had spent years discussing personal financial management with various community groups, to create an opportunity for students to approach a generally avoided topic: money.
Students today report that financial management creates anxiety and confusion. One participant mentioned to Pennock that setting and tracking a budget was overwhelming and, instead, the student simply tried to spend as little money as possible.
Yet many students acknowledge that avoiding personal finance isn’t realistic. They are hopeful they will have steady incomes upon graduation (potentially for the first time) and want to learn to responsibly steward their resources.
“One of the points I make is that starting out is an exciting time because they get to establish a culture for themselves about allocating their money,” Pennock shared. “They get to enact their values through their spending and giving.”
UVA students across Grounds demonstrated an interest in learning financial basics. While many Batten students enrolled in this workshop, students outside the Batten School, who haven’t met Pennock, also attended.
“Less than 20% of students in the class report that they have sat down with their parents and talked through their parents’ budgets, so they are hungry to learn about what is coming,” Pennock said.
Students arrived with questions about setting financial priorities and understanding how a personal budget works. They wanted to know what choices they would have to make in the future.
“Professor Pennock gave us a spreadsheet that helps you keep track of what you’re saving for,” said Emma Karnes, a Masters of Public Policy student who took the class this March. “I already knew that it’s important to have savings, but I learned about the different ways that you can plan and categorize your savings.”
Pennock approaches the workshop as an adviser drawing from his own experiences and research. His workshop focuses on standard industry advice and synthesizes it for easier comprehension. Topics discussed in the 90-minute seminar include:
- Have an emergency fund. Pennock recommends three to six months of expenses be available as cash, and explains why it matters.
- Attack debt. The class discusses different kinds of debt, debt consolidation, interest rates and home mortgages.
- Save for retirement. Students are introduced to different types of retirement savings accounts and potential employer matching programs.
- Buy the right insurance. Class attendees are encouraged to consider what insurance they need to purchase and when, including life insurance and renters’ insurance.
- Consider the income side. Pennock encourages students to find work that pays in accordance with their financial goals and suggests that sometimes a side career or paying hobby can be useful.
- Have a budget and use it. Good financial management requires discipline and students are shown the power of good budgeting and tracking.
“I think that Professor Pennock is a good person to teach this workshop because he isn’t afraid to tell things how they are,” Karnes said. “He helps students confront their leadership anxieties in [his course at Batten], so I think he’s prepared to do it when it comes to personal finances as well.”
Pennock stresses that financial management requires ongoing learning. He encourages students to continue learning about personal finance by reading books and visiting sites (such as Mr. Money Mustache) or forums (such as Bogleheads.org). He recommends planning finances in community with family members or a spouse, and with input from friends. And he always emphasizes giving back.
“UVA students and faculty have been given so much,” he said. “I think it's important to be as grateful as we can, and to express that gratitude through generosity toward people and places we care for.”