Money Stacks logoPaying for college is an immense consideration and responsibility for students, but being able to navigate college in a fiscally responsible way can lead to a lifetime of financial security. That’s why Columbia College offers a financial education program called Money Stacks. The concept isn’t new. Financial awareness made a tremendous difference in Janice Ayarzagoitia Riesenfeld’s education — she will graduate from Columbia College-Elgin with zero debt.

Ayarzagoitia Riesenfeld, a senior, learned basic financial information about budgeting, credit cards and credit scores in high school, and she wants to help others receive the same. Last summer, she interned at Operation HOPE, a Chicago nonprofit that teaches people about financial awareness. “There are many students and families that do not know how to manage their money in a way that can be beneficial for them,” she says.

To pay for college, Ayarzagoitia Riesenfeld, 21, worked at Kernel’s Gourmet Popcorn & More, a local family-owned business, throughout high school and college. She has been saving money since she can remember, from allowances to birthday and holiday gifts. In her first year of college, she also received a federal grant, which does not have to be repaid.

Ayarzagoitia Riesenfeld says her mother has been the primary and fundamental reason she has been able to accomplish her goals and stay debt free. After moving to the U.S. from Monterrey, Mexico, her mother raised Ayarzagoitia Riesenfeld and her siblings while simultaneously working as full-time teacher and earning a master’s degree in education with a 4.0 GPA.

“Since I was young, she has taught me and my four siblings the importance of hard work, dignity and honesty,” she says.

Ayarzagoitia Riesenfeld says financial awareness means knowing how to use money and understanding why it is important to be acquainted with the various resources available to help anyone manage and save money.

She interned with Operation HOPE’s Banking on Our Future (BOOF) division. The mission of the program is to educate low-wealth families about finance to give them resources to improve their lives and prevent the repetitive cycle of poverty. The BOOF program gives youth basic finance tools and suggestions on how to be money savvy. For example, she says, people might not know that cashing a check without a bank account costs $5 from their paycheck each time.

“Initially, I found to be in-sync with the ideals of the organization of empowerment, dignity and financial literacy,” she says. “I felt like I would be able to be a good real-life example to kids in the classrooms of how there are options available for an affordable higher education.”

Because of Ayarzagoitia Riesenfeld’s personal experience with managing her finances well, program manager Karen Kuramitsu asked her to teach the program to summer schools. BOOF emphasizes personal examples to make the material more relatable to children.

At a Chicago public school’s Career Day, Ayarzagoitia Riesenfeld chatted with elementary school students about the nonprofit where she interned. A week later, a packet of handwritten letters arrived at her office.

Inside was a note from a student who went home and told her sister about nonprofits and what she had learned that day. After the conversation, the student’s sister began thinking about finding work with a nonprofit so she could help others, and the student wanted to let Ayarzagoitia Riesenfeld and her co-workers know how grateful she was.

Janice Ayarzagoitia Riesenfeld“Reading it brought a smile to my face, and I felt good about being a part of an organization such as this one,” Ayarzagoitia Riesenfeld says.

At her summer internship, she had an impressive list of responsibilities. She contacted schools and clubs to schedule BOOF programs, taught the BOOF program, trained new volunteers and maintained the volunteer database.

Ayarzagoitia Riesenfeld says she entered the internship with a desire to better understand the inner-workings of how a nonprofit is run. Not only has she gained that knowledge, but she has also seen firsthand the impact the program and the company have on the community.

Three of the tips Ayarzagoitia Riesenfeld gives for financial awareness are:

  • Research various financial institutions, such as banks and loan providers to find an option that provides the most benefits, offers the lowest interest rates and pays the most interest on savings accounts
  • Ask a lot of questions from simple ones about benefits of a savings account to complex ones about investing in a mutual fund
  • Think about needs vs. wants, especially when it comes to shopping and eating out

“I only tend to go clothes shopping when I need something specific such as an outfit for a wedding, or winter clothes,” she says. “I love traveling and going to concerts. As long as I am not jeopardizing other financial commitments, and I know I can afford the trip or concert, then I have no problem spending the money for it.”

This year, Ayarzagoitia Riesenfeld will earn a bachelor’s degree from Columbia College-Elgin where she double majors in international business and business management.

Ayarzagoitia Riesenfeld is on the cutting edge of a trend around the country – one that Columbia College supports. The Money Stacks program provides students with essential financial information and skills for a healthy financial lifestyle.

“The college is doing the same thing Janice has done with elementary-age students,” says Cheryl Stephens, director of registration and financial services. “Education is an investment – and like many investments, it can be pricey. Making smart financial choices at this time is critical. What better place to educate students about financial awareness than an institution of higher education?”

Financial awareness tools

Registration and Financial Services provides tools to raise students’ financial awareness.

  • Financial Aid TV hosts online videos that educate students on topics such as financial aid basics, FAFSA, education tax benefits, important financial concepts and terms and tips on saving money.
  • Students can also use “Cash Course,” an online resource from the National Endowment for Financial Education, and USA Funds Life Skills, an online learning program.