As an urban studies major, Erika Topete, ’12, knew she could turn to her professors for academic advice analyzing any aspect of federal education policy.

Erika Topete meets with a prospective graduate student at a recent event on financial literacy..

Erika Topete, assistant director of the Mind Over Money program, meets with a prospective graduate student at a recent event promoting student financial literacy and planning. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

But when it came to making financial decisions – selecting a credit card company, choosing between additional loans and a job, considering leasing or buying a car during her senior year – she didn’t know where to turn for help.

“Financial literacy was not a topic of conversation with my peers or professors, and at the time, I was not aware of an office on campus offering guidance or resources,” Topete said.

With the 2015 launch of the university’s Mind Over Money financial literacy program, Stanford began taking steps to address that situation.

Topete, who helped create a Silicon Valley nonprofit organization devoted to financial education for young people, recently returned to Stanford to help extend and expand the fledgling Mind Over Money program.

The program aims to provide undergraduate and graduate students with the practical knowledge they need to make informed financial decisions – budgeting, saving, planning for retirement – on the Farm, and in their lives and careers beyond graduation.

“Our challenge is to meet the needs of students at various starting points and at various life stages at Stanford, as well as the needs of students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds,” said Topete, assistant director of the program.

Lack of financial literacy causes stress

Some students can turn to older adults for advice – parents, relatives, family friends.

Other students don’t know where to get the help they need, or even what they need to know about personal finance, said Matt Wojtaszek, a senior majoring in chemical engineering who served on the student advisory council of Mind Over Money.

“I didn’t know, until more recently than I’d like to admit, that you need to actively build credit,” he said. “I’d only heard about the dangers of credit debt from my mom in vague terms, so I didn’t apply for my first credit card until last summer.”

Wojtaszek, who is part of the first generation of his immigrant family to go to college, said many students need to work during the school year – and over the summer – to help support families back home. If students find summer work or a paid summer internship in the Bay Area, they face some of the highest housing costs in the country.

“There are plenty of other concerns that cause stress among first-generation or low-income Stanford students, such as class fees for arts and mechanical engineering classes, the cost of going home for breaks and the fact that Silicon Valley is absurdly expensive, which can make getting off campus for a night out with friends hard to do,” he said.

Wojtaszek said an impending graduation can also contribute to student stress.

“My peers and I will face plenty of challenges soon, as we get thrown into a world where we have to sign apartment rental leases, buy our first cars, determine when and how to invest or start a retirement fund, and figure out how to pay taxes on incomes that are larger than any our families have seen before,” he said.

Fostering financial wellness

To meet the challenge of serving the needs of a diverse range of students, Mind Over Money has developed a variety of resources, including online tools, academic courses, one-on-one financial coaching, and events and workshops.

Students test their financial literacy at a "Wheel of Fortune" at at the Frosh Winter Warm-Up sponsored by Undergraduate Advising and Research.

Students test their financial literacy at the Frosh Winter Warm-Up sponsored by Undergraduate Advising and Research. (Image credit: Michael Spencer)

For students who prefer online learning, the program offers the Haven Money Management Tool, which provides basic personal finance information on a variety of topics, including saving, investing, paychecks and compensation, and paying for school.

“We are also developing our own suite of academic courses, including a financial wellness course we will offer this spring,” Topete said.

“We direct students who like to learn in the classroom to other personal finance-related courses, such as Finance and Society for Non-MBAs, offered by the Graduate School of Business, and Personal Finance for Engineers, offered by the Computer Science Department in the Engineering School.

For students who prefer personalized guidance and attention, Mind Over Money is launching a one-on-one coaching initiative during spring quarter.

Last quarter, Mind Over Money hosted the “Designing Your Financial Future Fall Series,” led by Christopher Canellos, director of university tax compliance. The series offered expert advice on a variety of topics, beginning with “Introduction to Financial Planning and Debt” and ending with “Retirement Planning and Saving for College.”

Mind Over Money, a program of Student Financial Services, is guided by a Leadership Advisory Board, which includes staff members from 20 offices and programs across campus, including Stanford Athletics, the Financial Aid Office, the Office of the Vice Provost for Graduate Education, the Diversity and First-Gen Office and the Stanford Center on Longevity, as well as alumni and a representative of the Charles Schwab Foundation, which provides funding for the program.

Upcoming Mind Over Money events

Kelly Takahashi, director of Mind Over Money and a senior financial analyst in Student Financial Services, said campus surveys have shown that Stanford students are most interested in three topics: establishing and managing credit, investing, and filing taxes.

With Tax Day – Tuesday, April 17 – approaching, Mind Over Money plans to provide tax workshops in March. The program is collaborating with the Graduate Student Council to offer a workshop for U.S. students, and with Bechtel International Center to offer a workshop for international students.

In coming months, Mind Over Money also plans to:

  • Help foster belonging and comfortable money conversations at the first-ever Stanford First-Generation and/or Low-Income (FLI) Conference, March 2-4.
  • Partner with the Stanford Alumni Association in April to offer Financial Literacy Week, a digital campaign for graduating seniors.
  • Offer a 1-unit academic course, Student Financial Wellness for a Healthy, Long Life, during spring quarter.
  • Lead the first Women & Money Conference, a one-day conference to be held in May. Planning is underway for the conference, which was inspired by research showing women are generally less confident in managing their finances than men.

Looking forward, the program has several ambitious goals, Takahashi said.

“We want to provide students with the knowledge they need to strengthen their financial skills and decision-making,” she said. “We want to make financial information available to all students, regardless of their backgrounds, and we want to create a campus culture in which students feel comfortable talking about financial issues.”