Teaching the FDIC Money Smart Program in Prison
This program is available for free at:
http://www.fdic.gov/consumers/consumer/moneysmart/index.html. The materials are
well organized and quite comprehensive. There are materials for a computer based
instruction and for a classroom setting. We have used the classroom model with 15 to 20
inmates and find that the discussion and personal experience of the inmates is very
valuable. One prison teacher says that her students can finish the program in 8 hours of
There are ten independent modules in the course: Bank on It: an introduction to bank
services, Borrowing Basics: an introduction to credit Check It Out: how to choose and keep a
checking account Money Matters: how to keep track of your money Pay Yourself First: why you
should save, save, save Keep It Safe: your rights as a consumer To Your Credit: how your credit
history will affect your credit future Charge It Right: how to make a credit card work for you Loan
To Own: know what you're borrowing before you buy Your Own Home: what home ownership is
We spend a whole session on each module which gives us about two hours each class.
The first classes seem rushed as the participants have many questions which will be covered in
later classes. The later lessons go faster as the material becomes more familiar.
Central questions that come up routinely include credit rating problems, outstanding debt
and child support payments. We have begun to distribute the credit rating application in an early
class. Many inmates do not want this information to come to prison. They may ask a family
member to hold it and just let them know the most important information. Others find that it is
difficult to get the rating from prison. Extra information is required such as a notarized copy of
their ID, and former addresses. Our working strategy is to send a notarized copy of the prison ID,
a copy of the Department of Corrections letter (on state letterhead) classing the inmate to that
prison, the last street address and the first and last pages of the Criminal Offender Record
Information report. Only a few have tried this and we are still waiting to see if it is uniformly
successful. Report request form to mail in can be downloaded at:
Another frequent topic is financial aid for college and ways to take courses while still
incarcerated. See the resource list at the end for some suggestions.
Since my own interests are more in the fields of psychology, philosophy and spirituality, I
have found ways to incorporate a number of deeper considerations into the program. These are
coming together as actual mini-lessons but in the meantime I would like to encourage you to
include these ideas:
* Finances are a huge element in the success and failure of relationships so it is important to be
able to discuss issues early and often with those closest to you. We are developing a set of
queries starting with: In your serious relationships do you have a financial plan for your life
together, incorporating incomes for housekeeping necessities, education, recreation, medical
needs, contributions, travel etc.?
* We can and must work to unlearn the general teachings of society that material possessions
indicate some sort of status. We try to re-empower the old wisdom that “The best things in life
are free”. We spend time thinking of things we can do for free or for little money. We work on
envisioning the first day out of prison as reuniting with loved ones; walking in an open space
without feeling the presence of walls, wire and guards; exploring our neighborhoods outdoor
spaces; having friends join us for a community work day and picnic.
* Using some part of your earnings to do God’s work in the world is pat of the Christian, Moslem
and Jewish traditions. There is a belief that it is one way to express your faith that we will be
provided with what we truly need.
Adaptations and suggestions for each lesson are below:
Bank on It – I introduce this lesson and the whole course with the premise that the goal is to
create security, opportunity and then wealth which I define as having enough money that it can
work for you earning more money. An extravagant lifestyle will delay, derail or sabotage these
Borrowing Basics – I stress the idea that credit is important for emergencies and can be a huge
problem if debt mounts up.
Check it Out – I stress the importance of record keeping and the increased difficulty with the use
of debit cards. Few people deduct the money spent from their check register at the time of
Money Matters – Budgeting makes sense to inmates who generally have little money and need
to space their canteen purchases. One inmate indicated that he only spent 1/5 of the monthly
money his family sends each week in case the next month’s money is late arriving.
Pay Yourself First – Saving is very difficult for inmates but the idea of coming out of prison with
some funds to live on is very appealing. One young inmate told of knowing an older man who
had had a job for quite some time but did not have a TV or even a Walk Man. When asked why,
he lifted his savings book and said he got much more pleasure seeing his balance grow than he
ever would out of TV or music. This so impressed the younger man that he began to save the
majority of his earnings from working in the kitchen.
Individual Development Accounts are a hugely exciting idea to inmates who are excited
to let family know about them even before they can use them themselves.
Keep it Safe – Inmates find this quite interesting as they are often working to understand the
To Your Credit – This is probably the most stressful unit for inmates. Many have had difficulty
managing credit and others have never had any but have heard the horror stories. I encourage
them to learn their credit status and to make a ‘best faith effort’ to deal with issues right away.
Several have said that they notified their creditors and some sort of accommodation was made
from stopping interest additions to accepting a partial payment over time.
Charge it Right – Inmates are generally very anxious to build a good credit rating and very glad
to know about such things as a secured credit card.
Loan to Own – Inmates are appreciative for information about the greater cost of rent-to-own and
other costly buying plans.
Your Own Home – This seems an impossible goal to many inmates but all agree that it would be
worth living very simply to achieve it. They are appreciative to know about first time home buyers
Inmate evaluations state:
“The course was very helpful. I learned a lot of tips and hope that I’ll be able to
budget my money better.”
“I now have plenty of material with direct contact addresses and phone numbers
that is definitely going to assist me upon release.”
“I have learned a lot from this class, it’s not easy for me to learn or concentrate in
a classroom setting but this information is really important to me.”
“This class had information about checking accounts, savings accounts, home
equity and so much more that wasn’t available through the libraries, newspapers, or
The inmates know that I am trying to recruit more trainers for the course. One
wrote on his evaluation: ““If you have knowledge of this course I encourage you to come
and teach it because in dong so you are providing tools to people who would not
otherwise have an opportunity to learn them. By teaching this course you are also
encouraging a legitimate way of doing things.”
Resource list for Financial Literacy
F.D.I.C. – Federal Deposit Insurance Corporttion:
http://www.fdic.gov/consumers/consumer/moneysmart/index.html - the source of the
Money Smart program and other financial information.
U. S. Financial Literacy and Education Commission: http://www.mymoney.gov/ - has
excellent materials on all Money Smart topics plus starting a small business.
Federal Citizen Information Center - publications available to download free on many
topics, financial and other: http://www.pueblo.gsa.gov/results.tpl?id1=18&startat=1&--
Other areas covered include cars, computers, education, employment, family federal
programs, food, health, housing, small business, travel and more. Many good
informational printouts and pamphlets, most in English and Spanish. Most free all at
very reasonable cost.
Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations - Information
about Individual Development Accounts in Massachusetts.
89 South Street
Boston, MA 02111
Phone: 617 426 0303
Fax: 617 426 0344
Corporation for Enterprise Development: http://www.cfed.org/focus.m?
parentid=31&siteid=374&id=599 Individual Development Accounts by state.
Playbook For Life – The Hartford Financial Services Group – Available free from:
www.playbook.thehartford.com. This is a financial literacy course designed for student-
athletes in conjunction with the National Collegit Athletic Association. In addition to
good lessons presented in an appealing format there is an excellent Web Resources list if
additional information on credit, employment, housing, buying a car, investing, etc.
The fastest way to find a listing of temporary job agencies is to go to the internet and
write www.switchboard.com and push Go. Then type in “Employment contractors-
Temporary help”. It will ask you for the area (city or zip code) and the type of work
you’re looking for. Skim down the list and press “view website” for ones that look likely
—this will bring up a page describing what kinds of work each company provides
Funding Education Beyond High School is available at:
Or by mail from:U. S. Department of Education P. O. Box 1398 Jessup, MD 20794-1398
The National Women’s Law Center has excellent handouts on national and state tax