Looking for some tips for getting that "rainy day" fund off the ground? Need a little guidance in setting up your first financial plan? Want to learn more about long-term care? Would you believe that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) might be able to help?
Few Americans would guess that the
same federal government department that steers the country's farming policies and administers its food safety guidelines also has a program within its scope that, among other things, is doing its best to improve the financial security of individuals and families in every state. Cooperative Extension, a nationwide, noncredit educational network linking the resources and expertise of nearly 3,000 regional and local offices, 104 state universities, and the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES), does just that.
The birth of a cooperative extension program--designed to "extend" state university knowledge and research results to the country's rural population--took place as far back as the early 1900s. Though times have changed and the majority of U.S. citizens now lives in urban areas, the cooperative extension system still delivers useful information to anyone who can use it, without ever requiring them to set foot on a campus.
What is a program that traditionally has focused on such areas as agriculture, animal husbandry, and nutrition doing teaching people about personal finance? As the country's population has shifted, it's become as relevant to learn how to invest wisely as to maximize the milk output from a dairy cow. There also has been a steady increase in credit card debt and personal bankruptcy filings at the same time the rate of personal savings has declined. As times and needs change, so does Cooperative Extension.
Today, nearly every extension office across the country offers something in the area of personal finance. While the programs don't always go by the same name, with labels ranging from Financial Security to Financial Literacy to Family Resource Management, their goal is the same: to help community members improve their quality of life through financial security.
For example, someone just getting started investing would benefit from taking the 11-unit "Investing for Your Future" course offered online by Rutgers Cooperative Extension. As proof that some of the best things in life still are free, this site's "Ask the Experts" feature also allows visitors to e-mail their general investing questions to a panel of financial experts ready to help. An understanding of basic investing principles and the confidence to begin putting dollars somewhere other than under the mattress--or in a traditional, insured, low interest-bearing savings account--could make the difference between paying for a college education, buying a home, and retiring comfortably--or not.
Through Texas A&M University's Family Economics Extension program, visitors can access resources that include a newsletter called "Monday Money Lines," a library of media releases on various personal finance topics, and publications available free or for a nominal fee through the extension bookstore. Families exploring the topic of long-term care can access an entire long-term care "resource center" provided by the University of Minnesota Extension Service.
What all these and other extension resources have in common is their objective of motivating a change in behavior.
"Extension programs in personal finance are geared toward getting you moving," says Jane Schuchardt, the national program leader for the CSREES in the area of consumer issues and, particularly, personal finance. "That's our niche: We provide easy-to-understand, research-based, unbiased information that prepares you to handle your finances as wisely and productively as possible." And you won't get a sales pitch.
Since extension education is informal and community-based, individual offices determine the most effective and practical methods of delivering information in their particular area, which could include some combination of workplace seminars, workshops, demonstrations, community meetings, newspaper articles, videos, kiosks, or Internet resources.
"Since extension services are driven by local needs, not all offices offer face-to-face education," explains Nancy Granovsky, extension family economic specialist for Texas A&M University. "But community members can always get publications and answers to their questions."
Start your search at your local cooperative extension office, which you may be able to find in the phone book under the county government section. Or, use the CSREES Family Economics Extension & Academic Programs map, designed for locating personal finance programs in each state. (Tip: Scroll down from the map to see the whole list of programs without having to click state by state.)
Take advantage of what your local extension office has to offer, but don't let geography limit you. As long as you can surf the Internet, you can access materials and resources from extension programs nationwide. In fact, finding what you need will get even easier very soon. e-Extension, which is scheduled to be unveiled in stages beginning in early 2005, will be an online one-stop-shop for the entire U.S. Cooperative Extension system.
In the meantime, check out the following sites, where you'll find the tips, tools, and inspiration to make a real and lasting improvement to your own bottom line.
CSREES lists a number of Web-based financial planning tools produced by some of the nation's top universities: