Financial Literacy Month

November is Financial Literacy Month (FLM)[1] and this year’s theme is “Count me in, Canada”, emphasizing the fact that building financial literacy in Canada depends on the involvement and collaborative efforts of the public, private, and non-profit sectors. The first Financial Literacy Month was launched in 2011 with the Financial Literacy Action Group to raise awareness among Canadians about the importance of financial literacy in strengthening an individual’s financial well-being. The purpose of FLM 2015 is to bring organizations and individuals across Canada together to support the National Strategy for Financial Literacy – Count Me In, Canada, which was introduced in June 2015. The strategy’s three goals are to help Canadians:

  • manage money and debt wisely,
  • plan and save for the future; and
  • prevent and protect against fraud and financial abuse.

(Financial Consumer Agency of Canada 2015)

This article in the Stories from the Field series celebrates innovative and responsive financial literacy programming developed by the faculty in the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement (CEIIA) at Bow Valley College. Read on to learn more.

Innovative Financial Literacy Programming Helps Newcomers Navigate Canada’s Financial Landscape

Published by November 12, 2015

I enter an English language learning classroom at Bow Valley College that has been rearranged to look like a classic science fair. The energy and excitement is palpable. Groups of three or four learners are gathered around half a dozen tables. On each table is a tri-fold display, and I catch glimpses of some of the headings: Banking, Saving and Investment, Entrepreneurship, Shopping Wisely. In the classroom across the hall, clusters of two and three learners are gathered around laptop computers participating in PowerPoint presentations on topics related to money and finances. As I walk from table to table, listening to the different presentations, I learn about debt, savings, starting a new business, bank accounts, automated banking machines, budgeting, and the least expensive grocery store (as identified by Bow Valley College ESL learners).

Financial_Literacy_Fair-2015Aug06-1It’s the third annual Financial Literacy Fair hosted by ESL learners in the Bridge and the Youth in Transition (LINC) programs. Both programs serve young adult immigrant learners ages 18 to 24. The students have worked for weeks to prepare for this day.

Research shows that for newcomers, financial literacy is an essential skill for creating a successful life in Canadian society. Research also indicates that financial literacy may be a challenge for many newcomers along with the other settlement concerns they face.

What do we mean by financial literacy?

“Financial literacy means having the skills and knowledge to use money wisely. Being financially literate means having the knowledge to make prudent financial decisions, now and for the future” (Bow Valley College 2010b, 1).

Studies have shown that “upon arrival, and during the first year of settlement, the probability of entering poverty is high among newcomer populations (34% – 46%) and this tendency seems to be increasing. Statistics show that approximately 65% of immigrants experience bouts of low income within the first 10 years in Canada” (Picot, Hou, and Coulombe 2007, cited in SEDI 2008, 3).

While low income is not always connected to low financial literacy, newcomers without access to financial literacy supports are “at greater risk of slipping into further poverty” (SEDI 2008, 3).

Despite the government’s renewed focus on increasing financial literacy for all Canadians, newcomers continue to face unique challenges that require not only innovative and responsive programming, but policy changes within government and financial institutions.

Prosper Canada Centre for Financial Literacy[2] is on the steering committee of the Asset Building Learning Exchange (ABLE), a “national coalition of community practitioners, financial institutions, researchers, policymakers, and funders committed to advancing financial empowerment approaches to improve the financial capability and wellbeing of Canadians living in, or at high risk, of poverty” (ABLE 2014, 1). In a research brief prepared as part of a response to the government’s National Strategy, ABLE identifies some of the systemic and other financial literacy barriers newcomers may experience:

  • public policies/programs that impede positive financial behaviours by people living in low-income (e.g., savings and asset restrictions for social assistance and disability benefit recipients) or fail … to incentivize them to the same extent as other citizens;
  • reliance on unstable, low-wage jobs and other forms of precarious employment;
  • reluctance to access mainstream financial institutions by those who have had negative experiences with financial institutions, either in Canada or in their country of origin;
  • complicated application procedures or lack of clear messaging about eligibility requirements for tax credits and other public benefits to which they are entitled;
  • low levels of literacy and/or numeracy; and
  • limited knowledge of English and/or French.
    (ABLE 2014, 2-3)

In addition, newcomers face unique financial pressures including “financial responsibility for family members in Canada and/or their country of origin; failure to recognize foreign credentials, leading to difficulties securing adequate employment; and the financial burden of repaying refugee transportation loans, relative to typically low levels of income” (ABLE 2014, 5-6).

Financial institutions, community-based organizations and other agencies and individuals who assist newcomers during their initial adjustment period must rise to the challenge and work together to improve the availability of programs and materials that respond to immigrants’ specific needs. (Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service 2012, 22)

The Financial ESL Literacy Toolbox: An Innovative response to increasing financial literacy among newcomers

This brings us full circle to the Financial Literacy Fair at Bow Valley College. Ruby Hamm and Heidi Beyer are part of the faculty in the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement (CEIIA). They work with young adult ESL learners helping them to develop their reading, speaking, listening, communication skills, and essential skills – including numeracy. Their programs include a focus on the development of financial literacy skills. The Financial Literacy Fair showcases learners’ understanding and comprehension of financial literacy concepts taught throughout the trimester. I spoke with Ruby and Heidi to learn more about this important topic.

Ruby began our conversation by explaining that “in the Youth in Transition program, the end of trimester project this past spring was to host a financial literacy fair for the rest of the young adult immigrant population at the College.”

Heidi described how it comes together. “We have a number of different stations [depending on class size] so some learners are presenting on how to manage a budget and showcasing Microsoft Excel while others are presenting on the use of credit cards, and some learners are presenting on saving money. The students have to build up their own expertise, not only during class time, but out of class as well. They have to go out into community to get information, bring it back, synthesize it, figure out how to explain it to their peers, come up with takeaway information that people can take home, and be prepared to answer any questions. They know learners visiting the fair will have a lot of questions because financial literacy is an area where they have gaps in knowledge.”

For instructors and learners alike, the annual Financial Literacy Fair is a highlight of the school year. The financial literacy learning doesn’t stop there. Heidi and Ruby are also co-collaborators and developers of the Financial ESL Literacy Toolbox, a compilation of innovative resources that practitioners can use to teach financial literacy.

Funded by the Alberta Government, the Toolbox was developed to meet the needs of ESL literacy learners. Specifically, the resource is intended “to support learners with interrupted formal education (LIFE) who are at risk of not completing high school education and transitioning into post-secondary studies or career programs” (Bow Valley College 2010a, 1).

Heidi described the project this way: “Before we started creating the resource, we did a landscape analysis. We realized that not many of the tools we could find were for ESL literacy learners. None of the tools would have worked without being adapted in some way for the classroom so I think that was very much kind of a driving force behind this project. At the end of this project, the Toolbox reflects the collective knowledge of ESL literacy practitioners at Bow Valley College, and provides other practitioners across the country with peer-reviewed lesson plans developed for various literacy levels.”

Ruby shared how they started out in the process to develop the Toolbox. “We got together in early 2009 and started talking about what is it that learners need in order to be successful financially, in order to be able to deal with money in a way that’s really going to move them forward. And we didn’t just talk about it ourselves, we were able to talk with several focus groups. We brought in ESL literacy instructors that taught from beginner to more advanced levels, and asked them, ‘What is it that your learners really need?’ … And we were able to take that information and then decide, okay this is the direction that we need to go with our Toolbox.”

Heidi added, “Not all numeracy gaps can be addressed in classrooms that focus on language development. However, there are some core skills and knowledge that you need to know about money and how to navigate financial systems here in Canada. Fundamentally, we’re ESL literacy practitioners – we’re not math instructors. So our challenge was how do we build a Toolbox that enables a non-math teacher to introduce a numerical concept? We wanted to use what we know is best practice for this audience [practitioners].”

Heidi and Ruby worked together with instructors and learners in the CEIIA to identify gaps in numeracy skills and to develop financial knowledge relevant to the Canadian context. They were grateful that as practising instructors, they could try the new resources out in the classroom and use feedback from the learners to inform the shape and design of the Toolbox.

Ruby highlighted a strength of the Toolbox. “One of the things we did was look at the Alberta curriculum to see what numeracy skills could be taught in the context of financial literacy. Literacy learners don’t necessarily understand numeracy. They may not have a math background so financial literacy concepts may be used to teach the math. For example, decimals can be better understood in the context of money. That way the teaching enhances the understanding of money and of decimals. We worked to ensure that there were connections. In the Toolbox, the financial literacy outcomes and the numeracy outcomes are both present and connected.”

As well as learning a new language and navigating educational pathways, our learners are keen to learn how to make money work for themselves, their families and learn how to make wise financial decisions today and in the future. (Bow Valley College 2010a, 1)

The Toolbox has been highly successful in helping learners understand the meaning of money and move forward financially. Heidi and Ruby shared some success stories.

Ruby recalled, “We were working with a calculator online and I showed a student how to use it. He was a smoker and he started figuring out how much his cigarettes cost and he started plugging in the numbers. He said, ‘Ohhhh, if I quit smoking I could have a car.’ I said, ‘That’s right.’ You know, it’s as simple as that. You need to use your money differently.”

Heidi gave other examples. “The class was learning about budgeting skills. We had built our vocabulary about incoming and outgoing funds and we actually connected it to using Microsoft Excel. And I had one learner who just, wide-eyed, kind of shot up out of her seat and said, ‘I don’t make that much money.’ They had been collecting their receipts in an envelope. And she literally was plugging them into this spread sheet, and she had no idea. That was the first time she made that connection that she was spending more than she actually made. Another learner who worked in a restaurant was walking past her manager’s office, and her manager was struggling with how to make a pie chart in Microsoft Excel. She said, ‘Oh I think I can help you with that,’ and she went in and did it. She stopped working in the restaurant and was promoted to working in the office. Another higher level learner went into the bank with her parents and helped them get a mortgage because she knew where to get her information, she knew the questions to ask, and she understood how the interest would be calculated.”

The Toolbox has been well received locally, provincially, and nationally. To encourage use, the resources are easily accessible on the Financial ESL Literacy Toolbox website, which is part of the ESL Literacy Network, and can be downloaded and adapted to suit diverse learner needs.

Heidi described the reach of the project. “I’ve done numerous presentations on the Toolbox and financial literacy including for Alberta Teachers of English as a Second Language (ATESL) and hosted webinars on the ESL Literacy Network. I was invited to speak with the Further Education Society of Alberta as part of their practitioner training to do a really hands-on workshop to get them started and ready to jump in to teaching financial literacy. ESL organizations from across the country are recognizing the need for financial literacy instruction and have turned to the CEIIA to access support with material and curriculum development.”

The Case for Financial Literacy – Some final words

The financial literacy field has begun to articulate some guiding principles for effective financial literacy interventions aimed at vulnerable groups. In a research report for the Canadian Centre for Financial Literacy, Robson found that financial literacy interventions are most effective when they:

  • offer appropriate, accurate content, tailored to the audience;
  • are delivered by trusted persons;
  • are consistent with principles of adult learning for adult clients; and
  • are embedded in programs with sustainable capacity.
    (Robson 2012, 33)

ESL literacy practitioners are well-placed to successfully deliver financial literacy instruction. The Toolbox materials are designed specifically for ESL literacy learners and offer practitioners a choice of three skill levels for each of 13 themes. They incorporate adult learning principles.[3] Most importantly, the components are intended to be delivered by ESL practitioners and other trusted teaching professionals already working with ESL learners.

Heidi and RubyHeidi ended our conversation with a passionate plea. “There is a real case to build here for having financial and numeracy curriculum as part of early settlement services. Prosper Canada and the Canadian Centre for Financial Literacy have said that 40% of all Canadians lack the basic skills and knowledge to function in the Canadian economy and that’s almost half the country. It’s a very sobering statistic. I think when you’re working with populations that already have additional barriers on top of that, financial literacy is essential. I’m very thankful for the opportunity to have worked on this project because it’s an absolute need for people who are arriving in Canada with literacy and numeracy needs.”

Ruby agreed that financial literacy is an essential skill for all newcomers. “I think that what it really comes down to is that financial literacy is integral to the settlement process. It’s being able to make good financial decisions, being able to be wise in your purchases, and being wise in how you use your money.”

The Financial ESL Literacy Toolbox is an important resource for building financial literacy in new immigrants. However, government agencies, financial institutions, community-based organizations, and educational institutions all have a part to play and need to work together to continue to develop effective initiatives designed to meet the financial literacy education needs of newcomers.


Asset Building Learning Exchange (ABLE). 2014. ABLE 2015 Toward a National Strategy For Financial Literacy. Phase 2: Priority Groups. Consultation Response. Toronto: Prosper Canada.

Bow Valley College. 2010a. “Background.” Financial ESL Literacy Toolbox. Calgary: Bow Valley College, ESL Literacy Network.

Bow Valley College. 2010b.. “What is financial literacy?” Financial ESL Literacy Toolbox. Calgary: Bow Valley College, ESL Literacy Network.

Financial Consumer Agency of Canada. 2015. National Strategy for Financial Literacy – Count Me In, Canada. Ottawa: Government of Canada.

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS). 2012. Financial Literacy for Newcomers: Weaving Immigrant Needs into Financial Education. Baltimore, Maryland: LIRS.

Robson, Jennifer. 2012. The Case for Financial Literacy: Assessing the Effects of Financial Literacy Interventions for Low Income and Vulnerable Groups in Canada. Toronto: Social and Enterprise Development Innovations (SEDI), Canadian Centre for Financial Literacy.

Social and Enterprise Development Innovations (SEDI). 2008. Financial Literacy: Resources for Newcomers to Canada. Toronto: SEDI.


[2] Prosper Canada Centre for Financial Literacy is a national charity dedicated to expanding economic opportunities for Canadians living in poverty through program and policy innovation. They work with governments, businesses, and community groups to develop and promote financial policies, programs, and resources that transform lives and foster the posterity of all Canadians. (

[3] Adult learning principles include:

Adults must want to learn. They learn effectively only when they have a strong inner motivation to develop a new skill.
Adults will learn only what they feel they need to learn. Adults are practical in their approach to learning; they want to know, “How is this going to help me right now?”
Adults learn by doing. Children learn by doing, but active participation is more important among adults.
Adult learning focuses on problems and the problems must be realistic. Adults start with a problem and work to find a solution.
Experience affects adult learning. Adults have more experience than children. This can be an asset and a liability.
Adults learn best in an informal situation. Often, adults learn only what they feel they need to know.
Adults want guidance. Adults want information that will help them improve their situation or that of their children.


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