In a Nutshell: First Financial Credit Union takes on an immersive approach to providing its members with financial education resources. Instead of focusing solely on online content, First Financial offers one-on-one counseling to understand each member’s financial circumstances. The credit union also works with GreenPath to ensure members can improve their financial literacy. In recognition of its commitment to financial education, CardRates.com has bestowed First Financial Credit Union with our Editor’s Choice™ Award.
Off in the tranquil landscapes of New Mexico, cities and towns are sprawled out among the vast prairies. But while financial institutions can be found throughout the nation, they become harder to find as one goes further West.
And as there are plenty of deserts in the West, it can also be a financial desert as well.
First Financial Credit Union recognized this dilemma and made it a mission not only to provide banking services to these communities, but also to make financial education a higher priority — especially among indigenous tribe reservations where people have limited access to banking resources.
The precursor to First Financial was founded in 1937 by 10 members of the telephone company in Albuquerque, New Mexico. After a series of mergers in the 1980s, First Financial changed its name and began to diversify its membership.
Jonathan Sorsabal, Financial Development Educator at First Financial, said it was around that time when the credit union realized something had to be done about the limited financial footprint in New Mexico.
“That’s really been the guiding star of the credit union—to eliminate financial deserts in the state of New Mexico,” said Sorsabal.
So far, First Financial has 16 branches in nine counties across the state, and it’s the only credit union in New Mexico that has an extensive branch network. Most other banking institutions are concentrated in mid- to large metropolitan areas.
“We have built our branch network to engage with communities that would basically either not have a credit union or have no financial services at all,” said Sorsabal.
In 1997, First Financial even formed a branch on sovereign tribal land, which makes it one of the very few financial institutions in the country to do so.
“We still have that branch there. It’s staffed entirely by enrolled members of that tribe,” said Sorsabal. “And they all happen to be women. So it’s all-female run and all-native run. And in large parts of New Mexico, that rural challenge of eliminating financial deserts is also a tribal issue.”
To suit the needs of these communities, First Financial offers all the same services found at other financial institutions, often at better rates and terms, with a special emphasis on financial education.
Creating a Culture Committed to Financial Education
To better serve their members and provide sound financial education, First Financial implemented an ambitious financial wellness program in February of 2022.
But before the program got underway, it took some time within the credit union to understand the best methods and why financial education is an essential part of the services.
For his part, Sorsabal spoke with other credit unions to learn about their successes and failures. What he learned from his peers is that credit unions that treat financial wellness as a component of the business, and not just another box to check off, experienced the best success in their financial wellness programs.
“This is not just about the deposits, transactions and loans we do. We are educating the people of New Mexico, and especially with the populations that we reach, we might be the only resource educating them on this,” said Sorsabal.
After getting approval from First Financial’s executive team, financial wellness became part and parcel of everything the credit union did. Sorsabal approached each department and addressed the value of financial wellness and how it relates to what every team member does in the credit union.
“By doing that, it’s really motivated a lot of people to reframe how they think about financial wellness in their day-to-day jobs and how they engage either with our internal members or the people walking in the door,” said Sorsabal.
One-on-One Counseling and Partner Programs
First Financial has a total of 39 certified financial counselors, and 31 of those counselors are located at its branches. This ensures that every branch has at least one counselor. And members can access them by scheduling a free hour-long appointment during which the counselor can address whatever the member’s financial needs are.
Since these financial counselors are also regular branch employees, such as managers and senior tellers, they are engaging with the membership on a day-to-day level. They assist with challenging situations in which their skill sets as financial counselors can come into play.
By having so many certified financial counselors, First Financial is doing even more than most banking institutions that typically have a fraction of their staff trained as counselors.
To better assist members who are most at risk of financial hardship, half of First Financial’s collections team are certified financial counselors, and two of its loan officers are certified as well.
As more staff from the loan team come on board, the credit union is better equipped to help members improve their credit.
In total this year, 131 members have had a sit-down session with a financial counselor. First Financial has helped 72 members build a budget and reframe their spending habits, and helped 23 members improve their credit issues.
First Financial has a variety of ways it is engaging with members, including a whole community financial education component spearheaded by Dale Dedrick, who has been working in community financial education for 20 years. The credit union partners with organizations to provide community events and financial workshops.
The goal of these events is to have an impact on underprivileged communities, high schools with low test scores, and rural populations that are on the fringes of financial services. So far this year, First Financial has had 1,496 people attend its financial service events.
To provide a fully comprehensive service, First Financial also works with a financial wellness partner called GreenPath, which offers additional services that the credit union can’t provide. That would include things such as debt management plans and HUD counseling.
Sorsabal pointed out that having staff on-hand that can provide counseling is essential because the people who need help the most are not likely to use an online resource tool or watch a video to solve their problems. They need real tangible help from professionals who can directly address their situations.
“These members are struggling,” said Sorsabal. “Now that we’ve built this robust group of financial counselors, we’re proactively reaching out to people before they end up on our charge off list.”
He said that while implementing this is a positive for the credit union, it’s really about improving the life of the member. “It’s transformational. It’s going to change the course of that person’s life. And a video online doesn’t really do that.”
Credit Access for Members Demonstrating Improvement
As part of its commitment to financial wellness, First Financial Credit Union is giving additional assistance if members find themselves in difficult financial situations. The lending team encourages members who don’t qualify for traditional loans to open credit building loans that provide more loan flexibility.
In addition, First Financial’s board approved a policy change that enables members who have gone through the financial counseling program to receive loans if there are counselors willing to vouch for that member.
And that applies to every type of loan product offered by First Financial Credit Union.
“If this member is dedicated to change and they are on a different trajectory with their financial life, our lending team will be allowed to look at that loan through a different lens to try and see if we can approve based on that experience,” said Sorsabal.
Sorsabal advises other banking institutions not to give up when they find themselves unable to get the financial education message across.
“Don’t implement something and think it’ll work if it’s not working,” said Sorsabal. “Adapt. That’s what we keep doing with it. Just keep adapting and be willing to embrace change.”