A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Project Read Gets Smart With Money

by Holly Fulghum-Nutters and Pat Jarvis on May 2, 2013

My big brother, the person who I always thought had his financial house in order, is facing the short sale of his home and possible bankruptcy. People we know—family, friends, and neighbors—are facing tough economic times. Lost jobs, home foreclosures, and cuts in hours and wages have caused people to lose hope in the economy restoring itself. More and more of the middle class are facing financial problems that they never expected to experience. Those who were slated to inherit the American Dream have been caught in economic turmoil. One in four American workers is seriously distressed about their personal financial situation.1 As a result of the faltering economy, libraries across the United States are receiving more and more reference questions from patrons about financial concerns. Existing library programs that provided safety-net services are being overwhelmed by the emerging need among patrons. Project Read, a library-based adult literacy program located at the South San Francisco Public Library, has come up with an answer through a program called Financial Well-Being (FWB).

Origins of the Program

You might wonder why an adult literacy program would be offering financial education to the community. We found that the skills and services we had  developed with our literacy program were easily transferable to our new financial services program. The California Library Literacy Services (CLLS) library-based literacy programs have a strong tradition of providing goal-directed learning for participants. Project Read of South San Francisco is well known for creating timely programming that address its learners’ real-life concerns. Our core mission is to provide one-to-one tutoring services to adults who need to develop basic skills. By matching volunteer tutors to adult learners, we help people accomplish their literacy goals. We have a vibrant Family for Literacy program designed to help parents share books with their children. Our literacy van, Learning Wheels, goes into the community to offer storytimes to the low-income community. A component of this program offers nutritional information to families in a storytime format. The program, called Literacy, Food, and Fitness, was created in response to the obesity epidemic and has been extremely effective in helping families make healthier choices.

When the economy showed signs of collapse, the Project Read Staff noticed the resultant financial problems hit their literacy students especially hard. People came into the Project Read office with stories of financial difficulties. They were afraid of facing an uncertain future with fewer resources available to them. Many had been trying unsuccessfully to deal with financial problems and didn’t know where to turn for help. Some were facing problems that grew from their lack of reading ability. They had received letters from creditors, but misunderstood or ignored them, thus exacerbating the problem. Project Read staff quickly recognized that financial literacy is as crucial to their clients’ well being as language literacy and responded immediately. In 2009 the Silicon Valley Community Foundation offered an RFP through their grant strand called Economic Security—Combining Financial Education with Asset Building. Project Read staff knew that literacy students had been largely ignored when it came to extensive financial education programming and applied for and received a grant. FWB was designed to provide low-wealth and low-literacy clients with asset building services through comprehensive financial education. With the help of Saundra Davis of Sage Financial Solutions, a financial consultant and educator, we were able to craft and implement an easy-to-understand series of workshops for literacy students on financial management.

The program structure of FWB mirrors the basic structure of one-to-one tutoring provided at Project Read. After going through a series of classes, clients have the option of being matched with a free volunteer financial coach to help accomplish goals. Partly because of Davis’s engaging teaching style and partly because of the materials, clients developed a clearer understanding of their finances and were soon taking steps to put their financial houses in order. Matching them with volunteer coaches secured a change in their financial behaviors. As one client put it, “My coach helped me create a spending plan that I can live with. She also helped me plug up spending leaks. I’m saving about $10 a week now. This program is totally awesome.” Many of our clients felt the same way as they made their way through the coursework and began making the necessary changes to make a difference.

Our financial coaches were drawn from our Project Read tutors who were also trained by Davis. Central to establishing an effective coach/client relationship is creating a partnership that is clientdriven. Coaches are taught that “clients are naturally creative, resourceful, and whole and they have the ability to answer their own questions.” Coaches support clients by helping them set goals and craft a road map to accomplish them. Our coaches worked with clients to provide a level of accountability that has fueled change. One of the unexpected outcomes of the grant was that our coaches learned as much as our clients did. Vivian Padua, a Project Read staff member and a volunteer coach, expressed what many of our coaches felt:

In my first meeting with Saundra Davis, I experienced a total “mind-shift” in regards to my own finances. The wonderful thing about learning financial information is that I can make substantial changes in my finances for my future and pass this on to my children and, more importantly, to my young grandchildren. Based on Saundra’s training sessions, my future and future generations will be richer in heart and soul and will have the ability to make their dreams come true.

Recognizing the motivation parents have to improve their children’s lives, we knew that financial family programming was a natural way to engage parents in financial education. We held a series of storytimes to twenty-seven families highlighting money-themed children’s books and activities. We made piggy banks, played money bingo, and learned about savings accounts from a guest speaker from a local credit union. Each family received a copy of the featured book to take home to reinforce the storytime theme.


What were the results of adding financial literacy to Project Read’s core services? In short, our program worked! Sixty-eight people went through our financial management training, twenty-two of whom were matched with coaches. We heard about the small changes that people were making that showed they were using their money wisely. As one person put it, it was as though “Saundra’s voice was in my head helping me make choices.” This feeling aligned exactly with one of the objectives of our program: to help people be more “intentional” with their money. People were creating financial plans, plugging up spending leaks, setting aside money for emergency savings, and establishing financial goals. They were saving money at the grocery store, saving for the holidays, and no longer paying late fees. People who previously felt they had no money to spare examined their spending patterns, made the necessary cuts, and were now saving a few pennies at a time. Ultimately, the biggest change we saw was in confidence. People felt a new level of self-reliance; they now felt that they were in control. Instead of living paycheck to paycheck, they knew where their money was going, decided how they wanted to spend it, and set aside money so that they could accomplish their goals.

FWB was predicated on the goal of helping low-wealth individuals build assets. One of the tools we offered to help them accomplish that goal was through a program called Opportunity Fund in San Jose. Opportunity Fund offers working low-income clients a matched savings plan called an individual development account. Each dollar that an individual saves is matched with two dollars. The goal of the program is to help low-income individuals save $2,000 over a two-year period which is then matched with a grant of $4,000. The total amount the client receives is $6,000. The program, of course, has income guidelines and requirements. For example, people who apply must have a stream of workrelated income and have the goal of saving for education, starting a business, or buying a house. After meeting the requirements, approximately five of our clients were able to sign up for this life-altering program. Check out individual development accounts in your area to see if there’s a program near you.

When we started to look at the impact this program had on individuals, we knew that FWB was making a real difference to people in the community. For example, Patty, a single mother, initially came to Project Read to improve her reading and writing. Over the course of eighteen months, she encountered problems with bad credit and unemployment which resulted in her becoming homeless. Living with very little means, she often had to resort to payday loans to make ends meet. Yet the repayment on these loans was so high they caused her to sink further into debt. She was in a panic because she didn’t know how to regain control of her finances.

Patty attended Project Read’s FWB program and was matched with a financial coach and soon was taking positive steps to improve her financial life. She built an emergency fund, has gotten a prepaid debit card to use for discretionary spending, and has created a budget that she is following. Best of all, she no longer has to resort to payday loans. She has set goals and is taking steps to accomplish them. Patty shares the lessons that she has learned with her daughter, thus building a legacy of financial responsibility. She knows exactly where her money is going each month and knows what she has left to last until the next paycheck. Through financial coaching, Patty has also learned how to stay on track when facing crisis situations at work, instead of falling prey to prior negative behavior patterns that might jeopardize her employment status and financial well-being.

Patty said, “I wanted to show my daughter the right way to plan for her future.” In general, Patty reports feeling much more in control of her finances. She knows how to manage her money and has the support from her coach to overcome any unexpected hurdles. Patty now feels confident that she can make sound financial decisions. Patty’s story is similar to that of many people who went through the FWB program and emerged feeling more confident, in control of money, and hopeful about the future.

Moving Forward

In 2010, we received a second year of funding from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation to broaden our reach. Now we are serving literacy students as well as first and second generation immigrant families in North San Mateo County. We offer financial management training classes, match clients with financial coaches, and offer monthly workshops so that clients can continue to learn. We continue to train volunteer coaches to assist with clients. The response has been overwhelming. People are enthusiastically coming to workshops ready to learn and eager to make the small changes that make a difference. In 2011, we will offer a special series of workshops in Spanish for Latina women with a program called WI$EUP WOMEN, through the U.S. Department of Labor—Women’s Division. We will also be offering additional financial workshops to a job corps center at the adult school located in Daly City. We have expanded our family financial literacy program to include financial management training for parents following the family storytime.

Getting Started

Many library patrons have been dealing with huge financial problems, as evidenced in the increase in reference questions pertaining to financial matters. The need can be so overwhelming that librarians may feel at a loss as to where to begin. Start by passing out information, creating fact sheets, and setting up referral guides for your community. Several wellrespected organizations offer free financial information online and provide self-guided means to get in control of money. One particularly useful website is Project Read of San Francisco’s Project Money, which offers material specifically designed for adult literacy students. Hopelink, an adult literacy program of Washington State, has expanded Project Money into a series of interactive workshops. The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas also offers several financial resources. Their material, Building Wealth (available in Spanish and English), has been part of the core curriculum that we offer our students. Turn to your local literacy program and encourage them to offer easy-to-understand workshops on financial literacy.


One of our major discoveries is echoed in Project Read staffer Vivian Padua’s quote, “This valuable information was something I wish I could have learned when I was growing up. I realized that this stuff isn’t taught in school—high school and even college.” Most people don’t know how to make wise money choices; few of us were taught how to manage our money and instead have had to learn through trial and error. Unfortunately companies have taken advantage of our lack of knowledge. Education makes a huge difference. It provides people with the tools they need to make a change.

Like most successful programs, the real success of this program lies in the very talented and committed efforts of the Project Read staff—Padua, Pat Jarvis, Fernando Cordova, and Jon Valle—all of whom contributed to the crafting and implementation of this grant. They were responsive to the community, held hands, supplied tissues when necessary, and were there through thick and thin. Through their incredible efforts, the program became a success. Consider offering a financial literacy program at your own library; the results will be well worth it, not only for the library, but for the community as a whole.

For more information about Project Read, please call (650) 829-3871 or check out the website.


  1. The Center for Economic Progress, (accessed Oct. 29, 2010).