Hatching A Nest Egg Plan
Hatching A Nest Egg Plan
April 7, 2002
The Cleveland Plain Dealer
by Elizabeth Auster
At first glance, Stephen Brobeck's crusade sounds pathetically modest.
All he's asking is that Americans agree to try to save at least $10 a month. In exchange, he's willing to provide a free half-hour session with a financial planner (1-800-647-6340).
But don't be fooled by the limited scope of this offer that Brobeck, a former professor at Case Western Reserve University, announced last week at a Washington press conference.
Brobeck, who is now executive director of the nonprofit Consumer Federation of America, actually has something much grander in mind - something many Americans might laugh off as a fantasy as they sip their frappucinos, steer their SUVs and stock up on DVDs.
What Brobeck really wants, he confesses, is nothing less than to "change the culture" of our debt-addicted nation.
In the new American culture he envisions, saving money actually would be cool. So cool that the vicious cycle of credit-card spending that spun out of control in the '90s would finally end.
Instead, a new ethos would take hold. Parents would urge their kids to save. Schools would offer lessons in saving. Employers would offer numerous savings plans for retirement, and encourage workers to use them. Journalists would report extensively on Americans' savings habits. And politicians would talk constantly about the importance of saving.
A tall order? Brobeck doesn't deny it.
But he would rather not dwell on the considerable obstacles he faces: an economy that offers ever more sophisticated products through ever slicker advertising campaigns; a credit industry that markets ever more high-interest credit cards to people who can't afford them; a popular culture that increasingly promotes instant gratification and constant stimulation.
You don't need to go further than your nearest pro sports game with its nonstop bombardment of noisy sideshows, or your nearest movie theater with its nonstop barrage of special effects, to realize that we have become a nation increasingly unaccustomed to the virtues that go along with saving - virtues like quiet, patience and reflection.
Without an appreciation for such virtues, how can we expect people to take the time to sit down and sort out how to improve their finances? Especially when that entails painful concepts like delaying gratification today for greater rewards tomorrow?
Brobeck's answer: Americans have already shown themselves capable of changing attitudes toward smoking and drunken driving. So why not saving?
Hence his five-year crusade, with the help of the Ford Foundation and others, to devise a grand plan for changing America's culture of debt. The most visible results of his efforts so far are a fledgling national program called America Saves (www.AmericaSaves.org) and a year-old experimental program in Cleveland known as Cleveland Saves, which is serving as a laboratory for the national program.
The Cleveland program matches up people who want to save with "wealth-building coaches" who give them advice and moral support. Since it began, he says, 1,400 people have signed up, drawn by workshops, radio ads, billboards and promotional efforts by local employers and financial institutions. Similar programs are being planned, he says, in another nine cities.
Where the effort leads will depend on how many more people show interest, and on how much support the consumer federation continues to get from foundations that have financed its effort. Ideally, Brobeck says, he would like to change enough Americans' attitudes so that a majority become focused on saving. His estimate now is that only about 40 percent of Americans could be considered savers.
How to change the minds of tens of millions of Americans? One way, he says, is to focus on the positive message that even Americans with modest incomes can set aside enough money to build substantial nest eggs. Too many Americans don't even try, he says, because they mistakenly believe that only people with high incomes can afford to save.
Another strategy is partly semantic: Instead of inviting people to workshops on paying off debts, they're invited to sessions on "building wealth" - an approach that has proven more enticing.
Brobeck says he and his colleagues are learning as they go what people seem to need to change their attitudes toward saving. The notion of offering free half-hour financial- planning sessions was born in Cleveland (local residents can call 216-781-8090), he says, when it became apparent that many people seeking help had questions more complicated than their "wealth-building coaches" could answer.
Brobeck doesn't pretend he's found a sure-fire formula yet for achieving his goal. For now, he says Cleveland remains an experimental lab. And if it doesn't work?
"This is a big country and the culture doesn't change easily," he says. "What drives us is that no matter how successful we are, we know we are helping many individuals."
Elizabeth Auster is a senior writer in The Plain Dealer's Washington, D.C., bureau.
Primary Press Contact
The Consumer Federation of America
Attn: America Saves Campaign
1620 Eye St NW, Suite 200
Washington, DC 20006
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