No emergency fund … no savings … bad credit … debt. These are common challenges affecting countless citizens today.

According to recent statistics, 53 percent of adults are financially anxious, finding it stressful to discuss or even think about their financial situations. Adding to this anxiety are alarming numbers, including the fact that 60 percent of Americans have credit card debt and three in five adults don’t maintain a budget.

“The need for financial education is especially important in light of the current economic uncertainty due to COVID and will be a big impact on low to moderate-income households who need it most.”

Financial literacy has become a critical skill for people of all ages. Thanks to the University of Houston-Downtown’s Financial Coaching and Economic Stability Lab, more Houstonians are proactively taking control of their finances.

The Lab recently launched as part of UHD’s Center for Public Service and Community Research (based within the College of Public Service) and has received support from Prosperity Bank.

Through this lab, Social Work majors are earning financial coaching certifications and working with community members at Wesley Community Center, Memorial Assistance Ministries and The Alliance Houston. These students—or Financial Scholars—support their clients in setting financial goals, creating and maintaining budgets, increasing savings and building credit.

“At the same time, it provides these future social workers the experience of serving our community as certified financial coaches.”

“The Lab allows students to gain financial skills and knowledge they will take with them as they graduate,” said Richard Simonds, who directs the Lab and serves as Coordinator for Data Management and Tracking Systems for the College of Public Service.

Simonds has designed, developed and evaluated community financial literacy programs throughout Houston. Complementing his experience is the support from Prosperity Bank. The bank provided $10,000 to fund financial coaching training and scholarships for the Lab’s first class of Financial Coaching Scholars.

“Prosperity Bank is proud to be a sponsor of the UHD College Of Public Service Financial Coaching & Economic Stability Lab,” said Rudy Reyes, Vice President and Community Reinvestment Act Officer for Prosperity Bank.

“The need for financial education is especially important in light of the current economic uncertainty due to COVID and will be a big impact on low to moderate-income households who need it most. Families struggling to cope with job losses and reductions in household income need to be able to draw on skills such as budgeting, saving, and credit and debt management. These households suffer greater income losses as a proportion of total income during economic downturns and experience slower economic recovery relative to higher-income households.”

Social Work student Lupe Perez is one of the Financial Scholars benefitting from the Lab’s efforts and from Prosperity’s support. She already has completed 200 internship hours at Wesley Community Center working with clients to create budgets, dispute credit report errors and referring them to banking and investment institutions.

“My position at Wesley has taught me that everyone has a story, and everyone has lived through so much,” Perez said. “By listening to their past and present stories, I am able to use the strength-based approach that I learned in my undergraduate social work studies to help them reach their financial goals.”

Perez’s supervisor Samantha Sherman, Chief Program Officer at Wesley Community Center, credits her for quickly adapting to working with clients. She said Perez has particularly been an asset to the Center during a period of uncertainty for many Houstonians.

“She has provided critical assistance in our Financial Opportunity Center that provides one-on-one coaching and education to individuals who are building a stronger financial future for themselves and their families,” Sherman said. “During this time of COVID, programs like this are even more critical to help individuals who are working hard to get ahead.”

Beyond supporting Houstonians, this initiative also helps students recognize the significance of financial and economic literacy. Katherin Martinez is another UHD Financial Scholar. She said that working at The Alliance has helped her realize the importance of having a solid financial plan. It’s also helped her discover new career paths as a social worker.

“My recent experience as a financial coach has strengthened my ability to advance social and economic justice,” she said. “Initially, I was not aware of how financial coaching would tie into social work. I came to realize how significant it is for not only myself but for those communities I will serve in the future.”

The Lab recently conducted its second round of training sessions to certify more financial coaches. And in December, the Lab will spotlight the work of Martinez, Perez and their fellow Financial Scholars during a virtual panel. This event also will spotlight the Lab’s partnership with Prosperity Bank and its work in the community.

“It’s a team effort and one that will benefit many Houstonians and Texans,” Simonds said. “Prosperity, our community partners, and of course, our students are doing their part to increase financial literacy in our community and throughout the state. The goal is to keep up this momentum and help others avoid familiar financial pitfalls while planning for the future.”