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Holyoke Community College helps reluctant savers with planning, investing

Ken White is the dean of community services at Holyoke Community College.

COURTESY OF HCC Ken White is the dean of community services at Holyoke Community College. Purchase photo reprints »

CNN reported last year on a survey that found half of Americans are not saving for retirement. The percentage of us not saving jumped even higher, to 56 percent, in the 18-34 age group.

There’s more, but I’ll stop before you become too disheartened to read on.

Does any of this sound sickeningly familiar? It sure does to me. As a freelance writer and weekend waitress, my weekly income is not predictable, and no matter what I end up earning, almost every dollar is instantly spent on necessities.

Thankfully, my household doesn’t have too much debt, but the thought of socking away anything extra for retirement seems completely unrealistic.

I don’t think about my financial future much because it seems too gloomy, and when I do, I thank genetics that both my husband and I are healthy, since the only scenario I can envision is one that has us working well into our 90s.

Apparently, though, there are financial solutions for virtually every income level. The problem is that few of us know how to plan adequately for our futures.

And that’s where some of the non-credit business and community workshops at Holyoke Community College can help.

Ken White, who has been dean of community services at HCC for over two decades, explains that in challenging economic times, families need to find financial solutions more than ever.

Because White pushed for it, HCC has held workshops in personal finance since the late 1980s.

Since the recent recession hit, these workshop offerings have become more popular than ever, with average enrollment each semester topping 1,000.

White believes people cannot afford to shirk responsibility for their finances, and he’s determined to make sure that people in the Valley have the tools to take charge.

A first step

The first step for many people is cleaning up their financial past, and that’s the goal of the workshop Blanchard Warren teaches, “How to Become Debt Free.”

Warren has been working in the field of personal finance since 1999, (which is when I probably should have started saving for my retirement). He runs the business website “Debts to Wealth” — www.debtstowealth.com.

Warren instructs his students in a financial system that will help them get rid of debt –—and he means all debt, including mortgages. Typically, students create a plan for debt elimination and a timeline for completion that is 10 years or less.

Once debt-free, Warren advises his students to shift to all-cash use and to start saving for the rest of their lives. In other words, invest in your debt first, and then invest in the rest of your life. Warren teaches several times a year at HCC, as well as at other locations.

White says that people “can’t afford to not be in the (stock) market in some way, shape, or form,” so he also makes sure HCC offers investing workshops.

“Introduction to Investing” is taught by Tom Manzi, a financial advisor with Wells Fargo in Springfield. This introductory workshop is offered for beginners new to investing who want to learn about individual stocks as well as the stock market in general. Students learn the basics of reading stock reports, and how to evaluate when to buy and sell.

Beginners are also welcome in the workshop “Retirement Planning Today” taught by Chris DiStefano, president of the DiStefano Financial Group in Holyoke. DiStefano began working in financial services in 1995 and has been teaching retirement planning for over 12 years.

He started offering this workshop at HCC two years ago and it nearly always fills to capacity.

DiStefano says most people who want to plan for retirement lack confidence, which results in financial inactivity. He teaches people how to put together a working plan for retirement, bolstering their confidence and enabling them to “remove emotion from their financial decisions.”

In addition to teaching at area colleges, DiStefano goes into local companies to lead seminars for employees on how to make the best use of employer-sponsored benefit plans.

Keeping it accessible

In keeping with HCC’s goal to make its educational opportunities as accessible as possible, the cost of these workshops is kept low.

“Debt Free” is offered twice a semester as a one-time evening seminar and is $49. “Introduction to Investing” is also an evening class and is offered on three consecutive Tuesdays for $69. “Retirement Planning” is held on two consecutive Wednesday evenings for $75.

The class registration fees include workbooks and handouts from instructors.

If you don’t have time in your schedule to attend these workshops, HCC also partners with the national provider of online classes, “Education to Go,” or “Ed2go.” These classes are offered on rolling start dates year round, are six weeks in length and cost $105. They are taught by instructors all across the country, who contract with Ed2go.

The online classes are good learning opportunities — I took one Ed2go offering myself, on writing and getting published — but it’s not a style of learning that works for everyone.

Class lessons are posted weekly online, students log on to read them and then can post questions for instructors and other students in a discussion area.

While the intense and energetic dynamic of a classroom with a live instructor is not part of the experience, this might be the best solution for people with busy work lives and evening family responsibilities — certainly, it’s an option worth considering. Current online offerings in personal finance include a few introductory classes in personal finance and investing.

For further information or to register for any of the onsite workshops offered this semester, visit http://www.hcc.edu/business-and-community/bcs-registration.

For a complete listing of the Ed2go classes, as well as start dates, visit http://www.hcc.edu/business-and-community/bcs-registration.

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