Empowering women through financial literacy

Dollar signs on a chalkboard symbolize the costs of getting an education.

Tess Vigeland: At times, it can seem hard enough getting your personal finances under control. But what happens when your whole life is out of control? That's how it feels for many women who are victims of domestic violence.

Charlie Herman of WNYC in New York reports on a program to help those women take back some control by becoming financially literate.


Charlie Herman: Just a few blocks from Yankee Stadium at the Bronx District Attorney's office, six women are sitting in a makeshift classroom, learning about personal finance.

Instructor: do you work with your kids now on money?

Rosa: Ever since I started this program, I actually sit down so they can understand we have to pay rent we have to pay light.

It's a once-a-week, 13-week course that covers everything from the basic -- how to open a bank account -- to the complex, say, investing in the stock market. But what brings these women together is that they are all survivors of domestic violence.

Today's class? What should they teach their children about money?

Rosa: I want her to know about stocks and retirement and all those things, because the earlier you start, the better off you are.

This is Rosa -- she asked that we not use her last name. She says her relationship with the father of her three children turned violent in part because of money. She made more than he did in her job as an insurance sales agent. So...

Rosa: He would manipulate me into, "Oh I want this, I want a car," you know, because I'm making all this money, I want him to be happy, I don't want problems. You know, "OK, let's go get a brand new car." And then in the end, I'm the one that got stuck with all the credit card bills, loans and everything.

That "everything else" totaled more than $75,000 in debt. In the end, it was a fight over money that pushed her to leave her abuser last year. The argument ended when he threw a bottle and hit her in the side of the face -- while she was driving.

Rosa: That was it. I went home and packed up everything.

Herman: So part of the reason then was a fight over finances?

Rosa: A fight over finances, over finances and over the kids.

It's not a surprising story for Clare Stenstrom, Rosa's teacher. Stenstrom is a certified financial planner and has been working with victims of domestic violence for nearly 12 years.

Clare Stenstrom: Most women who are in a domestic violence situation have been controlled. And the biggest control an abuser has is financial. It's not always physical -- it's usually physical too -- but it's always financial.

Recognizing this, New York City's Office of Domestic Violence began offering in 2009 a financial literacy program created by the educational not-for-profit WISE, or Working in Support of Education. David Anderson is a former investment banker who left that world to work at WISE.

David Anderson: What we're trying to do is step into that breach and provide the tools for them to become sound money managers and essentially financially capable human beings.

The instruction is based on a similar program WISE provides to more than 20,000 high school students each year. Experience shows that providing basic financial skills empowers anyone -- from teenagers to these women -- to make better choices throughout their lives.

At the end of the class, the women take an adult version of the test offered to high school students. If they pass, they earn a "Certified Financially Literate" credential, similar to, say, certification that you are trained in Microsoft's various programs like PowerPoint. When it came time for the test, five women took it and...

Instructor: Congratulations, congratulations everybody!

And as these women pose for pictures, proudly holding their certificates, there's a sense of seeing something more than a graduation. These women, survivors of domestic abuse, are taking back control over more than just their finances.

Rosa: This class has helped me just remind me what are the important things that I need to focus on, what are the goals I want to achieve in my life, what's it gonna cost for me to achieve these goals. And it also has me thinking about my children -- what tools, what skills do I want to give my children that weren't given to me?

The first course was offered in one location to seven women. Now, more than a hundred women have enrolled, and next year, the program will be offered in three locations in the city.

In New York City, I'm Charlie Herman for Marketplace Money.

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