There is power in a union

One credit union in Maine is bringing financial education to some of its hardest hit members.

Portland, Maine, is, as anyone who’s been there knows, a special place. The smell of the ocean, the hip restaurant scene—it all makes this New York City girl want to pack up and settle down on one of those beautiful islands in Casco Bay. But the most memorable part of the Pine Tree State during my visit last weekend to talk about Make Your Kid a Money Genius had to be the people. In particular, it was the inspiring team at Town & Country Federal Credit Union, who noticed that many of the men walking through the door to open accounts lived at local sober houses.

Let me back up a bit.

Since my early days of writing about personal finance, I’ve been a big fan of credit unions. I was pushing them twenty years ago, when my New York Times bestseller Get a Financial Life: Personal Finance in Your Twenties and Thirties was first published. I’m still singing their praises in the newly revised and updated edition of the book—out now. And these days, it turns out, credit unions are having a bit of a moment—to the extent that credit unions can be trendy! Comic Sarah Silverman has launched her own one-woman campaign to get people to trade their big bank accounts for credit unions. And in Maine, memberships surged to record highs last year. Because they tend to be locally run, these member-owned not-for-profits have a serious role to play in their communities—and they were born to help, not profit. Town & Country was started in the 1950s to serve parishioners at a local Catholic church. What’s even better is that often the rates and services offered by credit unions beat those of big banks by a mile. (Want an example? TCFCU offers a no-fee checking account that pays 3% interest on balances of up to $10,000 if you meet a few easily doable requirements.)

Back to my story.

Maine, like many states these days, suffers from an opioid addiction crisis. Deaths from drug overdose rose about 40% last year—and the culprits in most cases were opioids like fentanyl and heroin. One of the costs of drug addiction that can go unnoticed is the toll it takes on an addict’s (and family’s) financial well-being.

Last weekend, I got the chance to learn about an amazing effort to solve this problem when I shared a stage in Portland with Town & Country Federal Credit Union CEO David Libby. Just last year, his company launched “Discovering Your Path to Financial Wellness,” a four-week money-management program that teaches basic financial skills and gives support to people in recovery. Often when people stop using they wake up to a harsh reality: Their finances are a shambles and they’ve lost—or never had—the skills to bounce back. TCFCU’s program helps them get back on their feet and move forward with their financial lives.

What Nicole Lemieux and Karina Tripp, the two TCFCU branch managers who started the program, did in their community should be an example not just for local banks and credit unions but for the Wall Street giants as well.