That's the spirit: Church spreads good word about financial literacy

They say you can't serve both God and Mammon. However, you can—perhaps—come to terms with both. Or so, apparently, believes Ian White Maher, pastor of Original Blessing, a new Unitarian Universalist congregation that's set up shop in the rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood of Greenpoint.

In its mission statement, Original Blessing describes itself as a "spiritually ambitious movement" seeking to transform the world through, among other things, "compassionate community." When I first met Maher late last year—I live in the area—he described various ideas for outreach efforts the congregation planned. These were designed not so much to win converts or congregants as to simply do good in the wider community and, in effect, spread the "common wealth"—primarily spiritual and social but also, to a degree, material.

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One of those ideas was organizing a series of financial literacy seminars, the logic being that many of the young "millennial" creative types and slightly older well-to-do professionals moving into increasingly high-cost Greenpoint—as well as longtime working- and middle-class residents struggling with such changes—would benefit from a primer on personal finance.

Maher told me such a program would seek "to help people ... by giving them the tools needed to budget, plan for goals and understand investment and retirement options."

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He was onto something. The fact is, most Americans—in particular, millennial adults under age 35—are functionally illiterate when it comes to finances. Seeing the actual numbers can come as a shock. For example, the FINRA Investor Education Foundation has found that 70 percent of U.S. adults cannot answer 3 out of 3 basic financial literacy questions—addressing numeracy, inflation and risk—correctly.

When five such questions are asked, only 24 percent of millennials (adults under age 35), 38 percent of Gen Xers (roughly ages 35 to 50), 48 percent of baby boomers (50-plus through retirement) and 55 percent of so-called Silent Generation seniors could answer at least four correctly. Among teenagers, the situation is even worse.

Here at CNBC's Financial Advisor Hub, we regularly cover the issue of financial (il)literacy, so I offered to help Maher organize and realize his vision for the neighborhood educational program. Certified financial planner David Mendels, an adjunct professor at New York University and director of planning at Creative Financial Concepts, put us in touch with the Pro Bono Committee of the New York chapter of the Financial Planning Association.

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The FPANY engages in financial literacy education efforts in partnership with about a dozen New York-based civic and charitable organizations, according to Mark Sallinger, a certified financial planner who serves as co-director of the committee.

These partners tend to service people in personal or financial crisis, such as women leaving abusive relationships and recently released prisoners trying to build new lives on the outside. Such organizations include Dress for Success, Career Gear and New York City's Family Justice Centers.

"We also are starting up [education] for foster kids aging out of the [foster] program, and for college students to prepare them for living on their own and their future," he told me, calling the populations the FPANY serves a "really dynamic bunch."

Beyond family budgets, Americans just don't get finances
Beyond family budgets, Americans just don't get finances   

Comparatively well off, Original Blessing's congregants and the surrounding community didn't technically meet pro bono committee criteria. So Sallinger decided to personally step up to the plate himself, working with Maher and me to craft and deliver a five-part seminar series entitled "Money Matters," which ran from late May through the end of June. (A second installment of the series—which costs $30 total and includes light meals—is planned for this autumn.)

The Monday evening sessions, held at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Greenpoint, addressed topics such as budgeting and goal setting, credit and debt management, retirement planning and investing and even the "psychology of money."

After an hour of interactive discussion led by Sallinger, with Maher's input, attendees—myself included—were sent home with an assignment, such as getting a free credit report, tracking weekly expenses, opening a savings account or accessing online Social Security statements.

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Being church-sponsored, the series also touched on the societal and spiritual aspects of money, commerce and the economy. The final session, entitled "Sacred Economics"—after a book by author, speaker and "de-growth" activist Charles Eisenstein—addressed the role money plays in private life and the community; alternative economics, such as gifting, time banks and local currencies; and possible future changes in the economic status quo.

"We explore the psychology behind money and the economic system that keeps us running in circles and tied to jobs we don't like because we are afraid of our financial futures," Maher said.

That's what drew New Zealand native Simon Spire, now a Brooklyn-based musician-singer and graduate student in economics and psychology.

"I was interested to meet and discuss ideas with others who are exploring ways of approaching livelihood, money and economic thinking in new ways," he said. Spire told me he sees a great need for a "more evolved" economic system, and "often such changes happen from the ground up every bit as much as, or more than, being initiated from the top down."

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The other regular participants in this inaugural effort had more prosaic and practical reasons for attending. Christine Magee, a married schoolteacher in her late 30s, said she "wanted to learn more about managing my money and getting out of credit card debt."

Like many Americans, the Brooklyn resident said she couldn't recall a financial literacy component to her own education or upbringing. "I learned through trial and error," Magee told me, adding that she's always found money matters "boring."

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"I also get overwhelmed and stressed by all of it … so I tend not to think about it or put much attention into really learning how to manage my money," Magee added. "I just kind of let it happen."

Having completed the course, Magee finds herself with new financial goals. "Now I want to think more seriously about retirement and investing," she said. Equipped with a better understanding of how personal finance works, Magee intends "to be more attentive and 'engaged' with planning and managing my money."

"The first step is starting to save, even if it's only $10. When people do those types of things, it's rewarding to me, because it means they're taking to heart some of the best practices that will help make their lives better." -Mark Sallinger, co-director, Pro Bono Committee, FPANY

Nearing 46, I, too, named retirement planning as my primary goal when Sallinger asked me to list my priorities. We noticed a definite—and none-too-surprising—generational split among seminar attendees on that front. Gen Xers like Magee and myself were more concerned about investments and retirement, while the millennials among us wanted to save for more immediate goals, such as exotic travel or luxury purchases. Retirement wasn't yet on their radar.

Sallinger, who donated all the time he devoted to the effort, said he found the experience personally and professionally fulfilling. He pointed to participants who, by the end of the sessions, had taken steps to improve their financial fortunes. One young woman, a Gen Y boutique manager struggling to make ends meet in New York, "just opened a savings account—even though she can't put away a lot of money," Sallinger noted.

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"That doesn't matter, because the first step is starting to save, even if it's only $10" at a time, he said. "When people do those types of things, it's rewarding to me, because it means they're taking to heart some of the best practices that will help make their lives better."

For his part, Maher said he hoped increased financial literacy will also help seminar attendees keep money matters in perspective."So many people in our nation feel that they would no longer feel stress and anxiety if only they earned just a little (or a lot) more ... but this often isn't the case," he said. "When earning more money becomes our only goal, it is very hard to feel satisfaction with our lives, particularly when our money habits have us constantly reacting and never really planning."

—By CNBC's Kenneth Kiesnoski