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Low literacy financial education materials

About a year ago, we started studying how to produce materials for low literacy audiences. (The result was our new version of award-winning Money Habitudes for Adults, released in November.) Why?
We originally designed the Money Habitudes statements to be quick and easy to read. However, we didn’t anticipate how widely they’d be adopted. The money conversation starter was originally designed to be used by a much smaller population, largely focused around financial planning and retirement planning. However, it has increasingly been used in financial education and financial literacy programs to help people talk about money.

The needs of low literacy audiences

In soliciting feedback from users over the years – it’s been 10 years since Money Habitudes came out! – we noticed a lot of organizations were doing financial education for low literacyliteracy audiences. They use the cards as an ice breaker, conversation starter and as a tool to help people understand the psychology of money. They told us that they wished the cards were written at a lower grade level. Participants liked using the cards because they felt fun like money management games, but:

  • There were cases where people were obviously struggling to read the statements and understand them. It might appear that participants got through the cards quickly but hadn’t necessarily comprehended the statements.
  • In other cases, it would take a long time for people to read the materials, so the whole class would take longer to do.
  • Sometimes facilitators needed to help students read the materials. This made it difficult in a financial class setting.

low literacy financial educationWho were those groups? Of course, there’s a wide spectrum in terms of who reads at a low grade level. However, most of the feedback about reading level came from groups like prisoner reentry programs, and a variety of asset building organizations doing financial education for low-to-moderate income audiences of adult learners. That might include public housing agencies, job readiness organizations or food banks that also offer financial education and assistance. Additionally, there was a need for statements in simple English for groups working with non-native speakers like immigrant and refugee agencies. (We do have a version of Money Habitudes in Spanish though.)
The challenge we faced then was something that confronts many organizations: How to write financial education materials for low literacy audiences? Of course, many organizations don’t realize how hard their materials are to use with low literacy audiences. Some have never tried to make them more accessible. It’s understandable. After all, to come up with materials that seem simple and easy to understand is actually quite complicated and very time consuming.
Further, our goal was to make our financial education materials much easier to read while preserving the spirit of the cards and, in the end, people’s money personality results.

Determining reading level for low literacy financial education materials

There are a number of formulae to determine reading level. Each different reading level formula uses similar metrics, but weights them differently. As a result, the different methods produce slightly different readability results. In other words, there is no universal agreement on what “8th-grade reading” level is.
These readability scales take into account factors such as:

  • The number of characters per word.
  • The number of words per sentence.
  • The number of syllables per word.

Those reading-level scales include the following:

As would be expected, long sentences with lots of multi-syllabic words translate to higher grade levels (i.e., high literacy and reading proficiency). Simple sentences with simple words score at a lower reading level.
For a number of reasons, we decided to use the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level scale. It’s widely used and understood and was fairly easy to work with. It measures readability in terms of school grade levels. We also used the Flesch Reading Ease scale as a secondary metric.

Choosing reading level and writing low literacy materials

The first step was to score all 54 of our existing Money Habitudes statement cards. This was a fairly straightforward but laborious process. Although there are a number of websites where you can enter text, push a button, and get a readability score, many of them turn out to be inaccurate. The biggest issue was in correctly measuring the number of syllables per word. So we resorted to a hybrid version of using some software and some simple counting by hand to get the Flesch-Kincaid and the Reading Ease scores.
We decided that we wanted all of the new statements to score at or below a 5th-grade reading level. This would make the material very broadly accessible. The Flesch-Kincaid formula for what “5th grade” means is quite complicated, but it basically means that most words would be a single syllable, with perhaps a few two-syllable words and the occasional three-syllable word. In short, we felt that going below 5th-grade wouldn’t make the cards much more accessible than if they were written at fifth-grade. Also, it becomes almost unfeasible to talk about spending habits and financial behaviors using monosyllabic third-grade or fourth-grade language. Fifth-grade felt about as low as we could reasonably go without having to change the whole nature of how our Money Habitudes conversation starter and ice breaker tool works.
Of course, it’s easier to err on the side of making material too easy to read versus writing it for higher-level readers. Someone who reads at a 12th-grade level will have no problem reading material at 5th-grade. On the other hand, someone reading at 5th-grade will not be able to read material geared for 12th grade.
Thankfully many of the old statements were already written at a very basic reading level. For those that weren’t, we then had to rewrite them to be more basic. (As a side note, we also reworded statements that used idioms and those that were worded with a negative – no, not, don’t, etc. – to make them easier to read.)

Actual examples: changing high-literacy to low literacy statements

Here’s a real example of the evolution of a single Money Habitudes statement.
The original statement from the Adult deck of cards read:

“Everything I buy is practical and functional.”

In many ways it is a good statement. This is partly because:

  • It’s short and direct.
  • It uses everyday words.
  • It doesn’t use financial jargon.
  • It doesn’t require any math.
  • It doesn’t have lots of clauses or different tenses.

However, this statement has 7 words with a combined 13 syllables. Consequently it scores at a 12.43 grade level. The words “everything” and “practical” and “functional” look innocuous but are long, have a lot of syllables. Also, the “tional” part of “functional” can be hard for those with low reading ability because it isn’t pronounced as it would be read phonetically.
We then tried other wording choices to make it easier to read. Some of these we didn’t use because they didn’t score well enough. Some we didn’t use because they scored at a low reading level, but didn’t make sense or didn’t preserve the original meaning. So, after a number of iterations, that statement became:

“I only buy things that are useful and practical.”

This still has 13 syllables but in 9 words, making each word easier to read. It scores at a 4.96 grade level. It is easier to read and looks friendlier for those reading at a low grade level. After all, the first word is now one character and one syllable instead of 10 characters and three syllables. It’s also more direct, placing the subject, “I” squarely at the beginning of the thought.
What we hoped is the new statements would preserve the meaning of the old ones and be easy to read for low literacy audiences. We also wanted statements that would not feel too elementary when read by high-literacy audiences.
The new version of the Money Habitudes cards are all written at 5th-grade or below. In fact, many of the new statements score well below that ceiling, so the average reading level for the entire deck is considerably less than 5th-grade.

Tips: How to write low literacy financial education materials

There is a previous post with tips about writing low literacy materials for financial education. Of course, these tips are applicable to writing materials for any low literacy audience, be they kids or adult learners.

Results of Editing Material to Be Used In Low Literacy Settings

What we’ve heard from users in the field who have used the new low literacy cards has been very heartening. Some basic feedback:

  1. The money personality sorting results that people get are still accurate. In addition, people still tend to identify strongly in saying that the “That’s Me” cards really do paint an accurate picture of them.
  2. The sorting process is perceptively faster for all users, be they high-literacy or low literacy. Where it might have taken someone 15 minutes to read the 54 cards before, it might now take 10 minutes.
  3. The cards are now more accessible to low literacy audiences.
  4. People reading significantly higher than 5th-grade don’t find the cards too basic or stilted.


User feedback about the new low literacy version

Here’s some feedback that’s emblematic of how people find the new low literacy version:
I started out using the original Money Habitudes cards and I noticed that the ladies I would have in class would not have as many cards in the piles as they should. Since most of the classes I would teach consisted of women that may or may not have graduated high school and most of them were lower income, I would offer to explain the cards to them if they needed more clarification. There were times they would ask but some, I could tell, were too prideful to ask.  
I was very excited to receive the new cards and could not wait to test them out. I played the game in the next workshop and asked the young ladies that had already played to participate again and let me know if the cards were easier to understand. Each person had the correct amount of cards and the ladies who played it previously said the cards were much easier to read and they seemed to enjoy the game a lot more the second time around.
The new and improved Money Habitudes game has been more fun and has sparked a lot more conversation.

L. Rachel Valentine
Real$ense/Duval County Extension volunteer financial educator
United Way of Northeast Florida

Tips: How to write low-literacy financial education materials

A few months ago, we released a new version of our Money Habitudes cards. This version is written with low-literacy financial education audiences in mind. All of the money personality statements were written at 5th-grade reading level or below. This enables them to be used with high-literacy audiences as well as low-literacy audiences. Low literacy users might include prisoner reentry groups, job readiness programs and a variety of asset building organizations that do financial education. In reexamining our materials, here are some tips for how to write low-literacy financial education materials:

  1. Having quantitative metrics like the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score is very helpful. (We set up our own way to measure in Excel, using that formula.) It’s very hard to just eye a sentence and guess at what the reading level is. The discipline of knowing something was too high a reading level – even if it was a function of a single syllable – kept us from drifting away from the low-literacy goal of fifth-grade that we set.
  2. Even sentences that look “easy to read” can score very poorly on a reading level scale. The higher the reading level of the person writing the materials, the harder it can be to simplify statements and really understand the needs of low-level readers.
  3. low-literacy reading levelSimply making two sentences out of one longer sentence often leads to a dramatic improvement in readability.
  4. At least with our 5th-grade goal, it was very difficult to use 3-syllable words. Unfortunately, there are some words that we would have liked to have used more, but we had to be very judicious in their use.
    1. This includes words like financial, insurance, investments, bargaining, negotiation, etc.
    2. Even words used in the context of financial management needed simpler alternatives, such as: opportunities, unexpected, emergency, advantage, responsibility, sacrifice, education.
  5. Simple present tense declarative statements are easier than other tenses. Instead of saying, “I like to go shopping,” it’s easier to say, “I like to shop.” Similarly, it can be helpful to flip nouns, verbs and adjectives into their other forms. So where one might say, “I am very knowledgeable about investing,” it could read like, “I know a lot about how to invest.” That’s a difference between 12th-grade and 2nd-grade.
  6. Sometimes it’s beneficial to let the reader assume what you’re talking about. For example, we might replace a statement like, “I will save my money in order to …” with one that says, “I will save in order to …” and let the reader assume we’re talking about “my money.”
  7. In some cases, we accepted wording that was more colloquial and less proper. For example, to say you “get” something could replace “understand” and save two syllables – and seven characters.
  8. Similarly, we might accept a statement that reads a little awkwardly versus one that reads flawlessly but needs a lot of words or more complicated words. In some cases this might use a fragment or start a sentence with “That” or “This” to allow breaking one long thought into two simple ones.
  9. Using lists can save words and syllables and make for easier reading.
  10. A thesaurus is helpful, not for finding more colorful words, but in finding more basic ways to think of how to say something.

How to talk about money: tips & advice

How to talk about money? Because it’s so difficult to talk about money, people often don’t talk about it. After all, it’s often said that people find it easier to talk about sex rather than talk about money.

Tips about how to talk about money

how to talk about moneyOne of the big challenges is that people rarely talk about money until they have to talk about money! So, for example, a couple may be married for 10 years and don’t talk about money – but then when someone loses a job, the sudden change in income requires talking about money. Or imagine the couple that will not talk about money day-to-day but then gets into an argument when the credit card bill comes. Or, consider a couple that’s getting married and their first real talk about money is when one wants a small, frugal wedding and the other wants a lavish affair. In such cases, talking about money isn’t easy and enjoyable. Instead, people make the association that it is frustrating, embarrassing or threatening to talk about money. As a result, people often come to this conclusion: If talking about money feels bad, then I’m best to not talk about money.
Therefore, when thinking about how to talk about money, a secret is to start off with easy, non-threatening, small conversations about money. By contrast, here are some big money conversations:

  • How will we ever save enough for retirement?
  • How should I structure my will?
  • How will we combine our finances when we’re married?
  • Can I pay for my child’s education?
  • Why won’t my spouse keep to his/her money promises?

It’s not that you should avoid these money conversations. But if you aren’t in the habit of having good conversations about money, it can be jolting to start with such big money questions. Similarly, dating or re-marriage articles will often suggest that you talk about money early in a new relationship. While that may indeed be good advice, it can feel weird, uncomfortable and accusatory to have someone demand to see your credit report or ask how much you have in the bank or how much you make. Even when presented in a very careful manner, these money questions can seem threatening. When people feel threatened, they tend to have fight or flight reactions. That’s not good for conversation.
Another hallmark of these big money questions is that they often quickly become conversations about numbers. Of course, when you talk about money, it’s hard to not talk about numbers. However, the figures can usually wait a bit. Also, many people lack the financial expertise required to address the numbers correctly; and lack of confidence, competence or knowledge is a good recipe for a money conversation that goes off the tracks and isn’t enjoyable. In general, build the interpersonal relationship, rapport and trust before doing the spreadsheet.
In addition, many of these questions have answers that are right or wrong – or there is an implied right and wrong. If you start by focusing on the fact that you need to save $1000 a month, it can seem overwhelming and frustrating. Or, if you think your husband or wife (or child or business partner, etc.) is spending foolishly, leading with that probably won’t lead to a productive money conversation. Would you want to talk about money with someone who begins by saying, “You’re really stupid and irresponsible with money”?
Instead, try starting a money conversation with sharing formative experiences. But, first, make sure you’re giving yourself environmental advantages to have a good money talk.

How to talk about money: setting the scene

This seems self-evident, but try to talk about money when you’re not already feeling down. Those cases are sometimes grouped together by the abbreviation HALT. In other words, you shouldn’t talk about money (or other serious topics) and expect great results when you are:

  • Hungry. Even when we’re no longer toddlers, we get cranky when we need food. Imagine you’ve been running around and haven’t eaten all day and then walk in the door and your spouse confronts you about a charge you made on the credit card; even innocuous money questions can turn into conflagrations on an empty stomach.
  • Angry. Consider that you got assigned an impossible deadline right before leaving work, then sat in traffic for an hour before arriving home. Then you’re asked whether you’ve paid the mortgage. Probably not the best moment to talk about money. Unfortunately, if you have a history of unsuccessful money talks, there can be built in anger or resentment that’s triggered when money comes up.
  • Lonely. In this case, one feels bad or drained because of a lack of attention, companionship, etc.
  • Tired. Again, even adults are subject to feeling bad and making poor decisions when operating with a lack of sleep.

Is there a perfect environment or a perfect time to talk about money? No. However, if you avoid these HALT times, you give yourself an advantage. Some tips about picking a good time and place to talk about money:

  • Plan ahead. It’s easier to say, “Let’s have this conversation on Thursday night” than “We need to talk about money right now!!!” Surprises are usually bad when it comes to talking about money.
  • Talk over food. A better conversation may happen over a nice meal, or coffee or a glass of wine. Some couples plan a regular financial check-in date night every 3-6 months and incentivize themselves with a nice dinner or dessert.
  • Be comfortable. Research shows that financial planners have better conversations about money when they simply have more comfortable chairs in their office.
  • Finally, start by acknowledging that talking about money can feel awkward. However it builds trust and lays a stronger foundation for your relationship.

How to talk about money: what to talk about

When thinking about “how to talk about money” realize that you have to crawl before you can walk before you can run. The first conversations will seem very basic. However, they are meant to be non-threatening. They are meant to build trust. It helps if you can first prove that you can talk about money and that conversation can be ok. This is true for a couple talking about money at home or a financial planner meeting with clients or a therapist meeting with clients. While it may be practical to start immediately with “Let’s fill out this form with all of your assets and income,” better results come when people feel they relate to each other on a personal level and have a real conversation as opposed to just talking numbers.
Here are a few money conversation starters to try:

  • Remember the first time you bought something with your own money? What did you buy? How did you get the money?
  • What was your first job and what did you do with your money?
  • What did you learn from your religion about money?
  • Growing up, how was money talked about in your home? Who paid the bills? How were big financial decisions made?
  • How would you know when your parents disagreed about money?

The goal here is largely to have a money conversation that goes well, feels calm, and leaves a good taste in your mouth. Secondly, you should come away with a deeper understanding of the other person with whom you’re talking about money. This may be a spouse, a financial planning client or a counseling client. You’re giving the other person a chance to open up and talk about money where there is no right or wrong. One of the main reasons people don’t like to talk about money is because those conversations often feel so judgmental: “I’m bad with money.” “You’re irresponsible.” “I’m right. You’re wrong.” The conversation starters above are meant to get people away from right/wrong answers and start a dialogue. If you see that someone never had much money growing up and always felt it was important to hold on to money, it can change the nature of the conversation from “You’re so cheap and tightfisted,” to “I understand why you don’t want to spend that money.”

How to talk about money: using Money Habitudes

Money Habitudes - money personality testOf course a great way to talk about money is to use a tool specifically designed to generate money conversations. Money Habitudes is one part financial personality test and one part money conversation starter. Still, using the tool feels like playing a card game. It’s designed to be non-threatening and easy-to-understand.
Again, if you’re going to use the cards in addition to or in place of the conversation starter questions above, remember to give yourself the advantage of a good environment. Don’t start using the game when you’re Hungry-Angry-Lonely-Tired and do it in a space that’s comfortable. That’s true if you’re using the cards at home or using them in an office environment (or classroom) with clients.
What people like about the cards over just spoken money conversation prompts is:

  • They provide a framework or an excuse to talk about money. It can often be easier to say, “Let’s try out this game” versus “Let’s talk about money.” That’s a simple but important distinction.
  • The cards are hands-on and tactile. Many money conversations can quickly take on an interrogation tone where one person is asking questions and the other person is answering them. (That’s especially true of financial professionals and therapists.) Using the cards is more participatory. Therapists note that it gives some of the power to the client to do something versus sit and answer questions.
  • The hands-on format also gets people to relax. It feels like a social card game and not a test or an interview.
  • Between the 54 statement cards in each deck, one’s money personality results and interpretation cards, there are many, many conversation starters. Conversation usually flows naturally from people’s curiosity to understand themselves and their results, as well a the results of the person or people with whom they’re doing the activity.
  • Because of the nature of the statements and the interpretation process, much of the conversation starter questions above come up, but more subtlety. Instead of asking how someone’s parents used money, the person doing the Money Habitudes activity may see his or her results and volunteer a comment like, “Wow, I’d never thought how much my mother’s saving nature affected the way I’d relate to money as an adult.”
  • The cards often prompt storytelling and sharing – real conversation – versus simple question-and-answer.

Couples who use Money Habitudes cards have remarked that it’s sparked the best conversation about money they’ve ever had. That’s true for couples who are still dating, engaged or newly married – as well as those who’ve been married for decades. Professionals who use the cards find that they start a different kind of conversation that quickly builds trust, rapport and understanding. It’s a far different process than just sitting behind a desk and asking money questions or asking someone to fill in intake forms with lots of numbers.

Psychology of Money – Money Personality

The psychology of money can be hard to understand. Why do we spend the way we spend? Why do we save? Why might two siblings see money so differently? What do you think about money? How do you feel about money?

What influences the psychology of money?

Although it’s a big topic, Money Habitudes makes the psychology of money easy to understand – for professionals (therapists, financial planners) and for laypeople. Money Habitudes feels like a fun card game. However it is actually a structured conversation starter and a money personality test in one. The assessment cards explain the psychology of money in terms of one’s money personality. It is a practical, applied use of the psychology of money.
Money Habitudes helps people see what influences the way they see money. Typical money psychology influences include:

  • family - psychology of moneyCulture (including religion)
  • Parents and influential people; family of origin
  • Media
  • Personal experiences

People rarely think about their own money psychology. Therefore, it can be a breakthrough to understand why they see money the way they do. While this is true for individuals and couples, it’s especially true for people whose work touches on the psychology of money: therapists and mental health providers, financial planners, financial educators, life planners, and money coaches.

Implications of money psychology

brain - psychology of moneyUnderstanding the psychology of money is not only about understanding formative factors, but also how this affects one’s life today. The Money Habitudes money personality test clarifies one’s:

  • money habits
  • money attitudes
  • money values
  • financial behaviors

This is important because so many of the issues around money deal with behavior change: How to save more money? How to spend less money? How to not fight about money?
When one understands money psychology, it opens the door to positive behavior change.