A conversation with Nathan Dungan, developer of Money Sanity U

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

June 27, 2016

MINNEAPOLIS — Nathan Dungan started his career as a financial planner. But when a colleague at financial services firm Thrivent suggested that he develop a one-time workshop for families that have trouble talking about money, it sparked something. In 2003 he founded Share Save Spend, whose mission is to help youths and adults achieve financial sanity with healthy money habits, linking their money to sharing, saving and spending decisions. After writing several books on the subject, such as "Prodigal Sons and Material Girls: How Not to be Your Child’s ATM," he developed an online tool — Money Sanity U — to reach a bigger audience of profligate spenders. His program now reaches hundreds of thousands of consumers. He talked earlier this month about what has changed in American culture to encourage people to spend more than they make:

Q: Why did you create your online tool Money Sanity U?

A: To help individuals and families be more intentional about addressing a variety of money topics. We created basic topics like building an emergency fund, buying a car, eating out vs. eating in and needs vs. wants. Our goal is to help people and families in organizations (both for-profit and nonprofit).

Q: Explain what you mean about financial well-being affecting quality of life.

A: Every year in the Stress in America survey, money is the No. 1 source of stress in adults, regardless of socioeconomic status. There’s a money component in job security, personal safety and health outcomes. A recent federal study said that only 47 percent of Americans would be able to pay for a $400 emergency. There are flashing red lights all over the place, and you can’t get out by just saying "save more money." We’re trying to give people tools to do something about it. It’s not about investing but about giving them a framework to manage their financial well-being.

There is good news here, too. Once people thoughtfully consider their values and if their behavior is aligned to them, they realize they have more control than they think.

Q: So you’re seeing progress with people enrolled in Money Sanity U?

A: We followed a group of adolescents in our program for about two years. We checked their learning three times in 14 months. Then we did nothing with them for eight months because we wanted to check the staying power of the concepts. We found they were spending less money and they knew where it was going. They had a financial vocabulary and higher self-esteem.

Q: Why measure self-esteem?

A: Diminished self-esteem triggers spending. It’s a chemical lift or "buyer’s high."

Q: Why don’t we talk about money?

A: (sighs) It’s the secret shame of Americans. A lot of people have a lot of shame about it. Everyone has things they wish they had done differently with their money, but we need to intervene with adolescents and talk to them about it. When parents can talk to other parents about what’s working for them, it provides peer reinforcement. We have to get beyond not talking about money.

Q: Why does our culture foster so much shame?

A: There is a lot of emotion around money. It can run away with us very quickly. It’s a conversation that can suddenly explode. We’re in the No. 1 economy in the world, but we can’t step into this topic. Some of us never learned about managing money and have no capabilities, or we’re victims of bad timing and we don’t know how to deal with that. There is an inability to be vulnerable on this topic and that causes stress. Unfortunately, it’s rarely a quick fix.

Q: Is the problem getting better or worse?

A: In some ways I think it’s getting better. With millennials, we’re seeing a softening. They’re more willing to put issues on the table. They’re skeptical of financial institutions. When people are willing to talk openly about student loan debt, for example, we start to see a shift and upward movement in financial well-being. Since the economic downturn in 2008, there’s more of a willingness on the part of individuals and corporations to take a look at it.


Nathan Dungan

Hobbies: Live music, traveling with my family, tennis

Current book you’re reading: "Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements" by Bob Mehr

Best advice someone gave you: Embrace difficult moments, they will help you grow in ways you never imagined.

Favorite splurge under $100: Date night with my wife in Notheast Minneapolis

Favorite website: They spur economic self-sufficiency by giving grants to low-income people of potential.