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Mastering the Mysteries of Personal Finance: McDougal Money Mondays

September 13, 2014

No one is born knowing how to manage money. Graduate students, who develop expertise in their chosen fields in addition to plenty of general knowledge, don’t necessarily know how to handle their own personal finances.

In feedback gathered by McDougal Graduate Student Life (GSL), some students reported that they felt intimidated by the complexity of the financial system; others were anxious about making major decisions that involved retirement or homeownership.

To help address that need, Alyssa Siefert (Biomedical Engineering), working with Assistant Dean Lisa Brandes, director of the Office of Graduate Student Life, created a series of financial education seminars called “McDougal Money Mondays,” aka MMM.

The programs ran last spring and will be repeated and expanded this semester, with sessions beginning September 29. Topics will include financial life after Yale, building and maintaining good credit, investing, and home buying.

The goal of MMM is to empower graduate and professional students to make advantageous decisions,” Alyssa says. “I wanted to make the esoteric world of finance accessible to the maximum number of smart people at Yale.”

At each MMM session last semester, a visiting expert demystified a topic, provided advice, and answered questions. In all, more than 230 members of the Yale community – 70 percent of them graduate students – attended.

Researcher Jean Zheng (Ph.D. 2013, Mechanical Engineering) “thought the MMM series was excellent,” she says. “I already knew the basics, but I wanted to learn more about ‘risky’ investments like stocks, bonds, exchange traded funds (ETFs), and mutual funds.” One of the presenters, John Caserta, offered a free consultation to all attendees, and, “I’m happy to say we now have a working relationship to discuss my finances on a regular basis! He’s been very helpful, and I would not have taken my money management to the next level if it weren’t for the MMM series.”

The early sessions covered broad topics; later ones focused more narrowly on specifics such as investing, saving for retirement, and buying a house. Each program was designed to be interactive and useful, providing suggestions for how students could improve their financial status now and in the future.

Even if many students weren’t able to take immediate action, we wanted to increase their financial awareness and confidence,” Alyssa says. “An unexpected positive outcome was that students met people with similar interests, questions, and fears, building community” and making new friends while learning about practical matters.

In the first session, Steve Blum, a CPA and Yale College alumnus, presented “Financial Life after Yale.” He gave an overview of personal finance, with information on setting a budget and establishing credit. Graduate student Sean Hundtofte (Management) gave an introduction to the American financial system at the second session. Local financial adviser (and Yale College alumnus) John Caserta discussed long-term investing for retirement, and biochemistry graduate student Garrett Cobb presented “Practical Steps for Saving and Stock Investing,” based on his own experience as well as experts he has studied. At the final session, Bridgette P. Russell, managing director of the New Haven HomeOwnership Program at Neighborhood Housing Services, explained the ins and outs of buying a home.

Alyssa launched the MMM series because she has “been interested in, and intimidated by finance for a long time, a fear that I overcame by day-trading biotech stocks (monetizing my scientific knowledge), having spirited discussions with my bond analyst sister, and enrolling in School of Management classes through the excellent Advanced Graduate Leadership Program run through the School of Engineering & Applied Science,” she says. “I remember how uninformed I felt; I didn’t even know whom to ask about things like building credit, opening a stock portfolio, and what mortgage terms meant.” By expanding the MMM offerings this year, she hopes to deepen her own knowledge and “stress-test some of my learning by organizing more advanced, focused sessions.”

Originally from Connecticut, Alyssa earned her undergraduate degree from Carnegie Mellon University with a double major in chemical engineering and biomedical engineering and a minor in professional writing. She is currently doing research in Tarek Fahmy’s lab on rationally designed, biologically inspired materials to educate and leverage the immune system to fix a variety of pathologies, including peanut allergy, parasitic infections, multi-drug-resistant cancer, and plague.

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