Big banks may have the deep pockets to subsidize financial literacy programs, but it's the smaller banks, with their deep ties to communities, that may actually benefit the most from sponsoring such instruction.
At the website of one such community bank, Salem Five Cents Savings Bank, in Salem, Mass., children can check balances and access an educational section that the bank encourages them to use with their parents. It includes 12 online lessons that teach financial literacy on topics such as checking accounts, taxes, mortgages, smart shopping and credit cards.
The bank said the number of its children's accounts, called the Gold Star Saver account, doubled to 2,000 last year from 2009, and these now have more than $1 million in deposits.
At the Salem Five website, Salem Five has leveraged its connection to the area's love of the Boston Red Sox to craft its message. Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia is the spokesman for the bank's literacy campaign, and the successful completion of each online lesson has a video of Pedroia talking about personal finance.
The bank's current campaign encourages families to use meal time to discuss finances. The bank is also running a contest in which five families will win dinner with Pedroia.
"The whole family can get engaged with the idea of using Dustin and the Red Sox to inspire their kids to save money, and to learn about money, and making it cool and fun," said Martha Acworth, chief marketing officer for Salem Five.
While financial literacy programs are by their essence altruistic, that's not to say that sponsoring banks don't also benefit.
"Banks that are perceived as 'customer advocates,' that is, doing what's right for their customers … have higher customer loyalty," Ron Shevlin, a senior analyst at Aite Group LLC of Boston, said in an email.
Smaller banks appear better placed than their big brothers to be those customer advocates. As Marc Piro, vice president of marketing at Valley National Bancorp of Wayne, N.J., put it, "We live and work in the community on a daily basis, and we know what families are going through, and we are intimately involved with them."
Ironically, it's parents who may be the beneficiaries of their kids' financial literacy programs.
In a recent ING survey, 31% of parents said they had withdrawn or considered withdrawing money from their children's savings accounts to pay bills or pay off debt.
The ING study, conducted in February, surveyed 2,000 adults 18 and older, including 627 people who are parents of children under 18 years old. It found more were prepared to talk to their children about drugs and alcohol (32%) than about financial matters (26%).
That dynamic could cast an entire generation of kids adrift on handling finances when they grow up. In its own survey of financial literacy of 200 children age 7 to 12 last April, Salem Five found that children consider parents the trusted source of financial education, with 90% saying they learned about money from their parents, on topics such as budget, debt and constructing a formal financial plan.
"Our survey showed children are more apt to listen to their parents — and it is not just to what they hear, but the example that is being set," Acworth said.
Experts said parents cannot teach their kids if they lack the knowledge themselves.
"People don't know how to talk about finances, and they don't know how early they need to start" talking about it with their children, said Stessa Cohen, research director of banking industry advisory services at Gartner Inc. of Stamford, Conn. Parents should probably start introducing children to simple financial concepts at preschool age, Cohen said.
Forrester Research of Cambridge, Mass., found that credit unions and community banks fared better in consumers' minds when it comes to customer advocacy efforts such as financial literacy programs, according to a report it published in March. More than half of consumers gave community and regional banks high marks for customer advocacy, and two-thirds gave credit unions high marks, compared to one-third who did so for the largest banks. Forrester speculates that is because smaller financial institutions are able to tailor their messages specifically to the markets they serve.
Valley National is one such bank with deep community ties and a well-developed literacy campaign that starts with kids.
It has 69,500 children enrolled in the Kids First Savings Club account. The passbook product, geared to the under-18 crowd, is bolstered by online cartoon characters — called Val and Lee — that teach young consumers the basics of their financial lives.
The bank also conducts frequent community campaigns, holding financial literacy days at local schools, for which it has also developed a financial curriculum.
Valley National's Piro added that one of the jobs of the bank is to provide parents with the tools to talk about financial matters with their children.
He said that the recession had not adversely impacted the rate of children signing up for the accounts, which match up to $10 of money deposited.
Piro also said he found no evidence of parents raiding their children's accounts to pay their own bills or debts.
Jacob Jegher, a senior analyst at the research firm Celent, said that by providing education and training about financial matters, banks can become better partners with their customers, potentially helping them to avoid awkwardness around financial topics.
"It improves the perception of trust, which can let the bank potentially sell additional products and services, and build relationships," Jegher said.
For its part, ING has tried to leverage its Planet Orange website to attract a young banking audience. The website uses cartoon graphics to personalize ideas and lessons about earning, saving and investing.
In December ING announced its Kids Savings account, a no-fee, online account. In late 2010, the company said it had 400,000 people younger than 18 saving through joint accounts, out of 8 million savings account customers in the U.S.
(ING did not make anyone available to comment, and it did not update the number of young customers it has.)
PNC Financial Services Group Inc., as part of its 10-year, $100 million grant program called Grow Up Great, announced a $12 million initiative on April 13 to boost financial literacy for pre-schoolers, their parents, teachers and caregivers. The initiative includes a $5 million grant pool to nonprofits, such as libraries and universities, as well as providing 1 million community outreach kits that include children's workbooks and DVDs that use Sesame Street characters like Elmo and Cookie Monster to teach financial basics.
At an event announcing the grant at the Newark Public Library, PNC chairman and chief executive James E. Rohr said that, as a result of the recession, there is heightened interest in topics like mortgages, living within one's means and budget shortfalls. "It's not just individuals," Rohr said. "Our country seems to be going through the same issues."
Finally, personal financial management providers have also recently shown an interest in bolstering the financial education of children. Intuit Inc.'s Mint.com has developed a financial curriculum for eighth-grade students in partnership with Scholastic Inc. It will be given to 30,000 classes, and 300,000 students nationwide, and folded into math lessons. The curriculum is linked to an online game called Quest for Money on the Mint website, which lets students examine things like budgeting to buy what they want and choosing different careers to see how the pay differential might impact their spending ability.
Part of the mission of PFM sites like Mint is to help adults get a better grasp of their finances by seeing all their income and spending in one place. This helps consumers set savings goals and determine whether they have enough money to pay upcoming bills.
Mint founder Aaron Patzer said he was inspired to create a curriculum for children two years ago, after a talk with 200 high school teachers in Ohio.
"Not only did the teachers not have a great [financial literacy] lesson plan, they did not have a great knowledge themselves," Patzer said. "There is a lack of personal financial education in high school and college."
Heather Landy contributed to this article.