On the Plaza: Student promotes smart saving

Growing up, Steven Blaser gleaned from his parents the value of saving a hard-earned dollar. But he noticed a shortage of understanding about basic financial concepts among many of his peers. in February 2012, Blaser started Duke/Durham Saves, an affiliate of Duke’s Financial Economics Center. Inspired by the national America Saves campaign, Blaser’s local initiative promotes financial literacy and smart saving habits in the Durham community as well as on campus.

According to Blaser, a senior, sometimes people go without bank accounts because they lack the minimum opening balance needed to open one. Some harbor a distrust of banks, while others simply put it off. “It’s not necessarily that people don’t want to save,” he says. “It’s just thatwithout the easy opportunity to do it, it never gets done.”

To erase these barriers, Duke/ Durham Saves works with two local credit unions—Self-Help and the Duke Federal Credit union—to set up “incentivized” savings accounts that require small opening balances and are designed for long-term savings. College students and employed adults can then easily open collegeaccounts, start retirement funds, and avoid debt.

Duke/Durham Saves also works to instill financial mindfulness in Durham’s younger population. Once a week at a local Boys & Girls Club, Blaser teaches kids ages eight to twelve how to make sound financial decisions when facing adversity or stress. They role-play to make dry financial concepts more dynamic andmemorable. “It’s actually sometimes more productive when people feel like they’re not even learning,” reports Blaser. “You’re getting the concepts in but you’re doing it in a fun way.” Also in the works are granting microloans to local youth and pairing Durham kids with Duke student mentors.

Resources for smart savings are needed on campus, too. Recently, acontroversial op-ed in The Chronicle, “I came to Duke with an empty wallet,” reinforced the need for Blaser’s work. “There’s this idea at Duke that everyone is really wealthy, but the reality is that more than 40 percent of students are on financial aid,” Blaser notes. “Duke is not necessarily this hot pocket of wealth that people would expect.”

Responding to these assumptions, Duke/Durham Saves holds office hours in the Financial Aid Office, where Blaser and his colleagues advise students on credit cards, investing, and taxes. They’re working on creating mini-videos to publicize less-expensive options for food, entertainment, and transportation, as well as posting DukeCard target checkpoints on Twitter. He also wants to create forums where students can overcome embarrassment and shame by talking about financial situations in a secure environment. Blaser hopes to involve recent alumni by inviting them to share how they’re handling college loans or changing financial situations after graduating.

While supervising Duke/Durham Saves, Blaser still finds time to teach a house course on personal finance; review social strategy for the innovation & entrepreneurship initiative; direct North Carolina Common Sense, a government transparency nonprofit he created as a sophomore; and socialize with his Pi Kappa Phi brothers.

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