Lakes Region Weekly | By John Balentine
Five years after the Wall Street crash, many Mainers are still facing a bleak financial future.
Young Mainers, those age 18-25, are especially struggling to find good-paying jobs while dealing with large student debt payments and high apartment rental rates.
Those are the kinds of folks 21-year-old Lauren Reeves, a recent University of Maine graduate and Windham transplant, will try to reach as the new “spokester” for the Portland-based Maine Credit Union League.
Reeves, who grew up in Lovell outside of Bridgton and attended Fryeburg Academy, was a journalism major at Orono. In her new role, Reeves will tap her experiences at the student newspaper as she aims to relate to and encourage younger Mainers as the spokeswoman for “Young & Free Maine,” a credit union league program in existence for three years that aims to increase membership rates in the 18- to 25-year-old age bracket.
“I was a writer and editor at the student newspaper at UMaine and for every story I covered I had to talk to somebody, whether it was calling them on the phone or walking up to them at an event. I had to put myself out there and introduce myself to people all the time,” she said.
Reeves was one of eight who applied for the statewide job, which was run more as a contest where each applicant submitted blogs and YouTube videos about why they deserved the position. Those skills will come in handy as her job will consist of regular blog updates on the Young & Free Maine section of the league’s website, as well as making short movies that illustrate a point she’s trying to make or feature people she’s met at events.
Similar to the previous two “spokesters” – a title that originated with the first spokester, who thought it sounded more hip than “spokesperson” – Reeves will spend one year in the position. Her tenure began Monday, July 1. She’ll spend much of July in training and then hit the road in a car supplied by the credit union league attending events throughout the state.
Reeves, who doesn’t have any long-range career goals and is “taking it one day at a time,” is excited to have her own company car and to have a chance to explore Maine.
“I cannot wait to connect with other people my age and make sure that they’re getting the best possible solutions from their financial institution,” she said.
Once relationships are made, the idea is to keep those young Mainers engaged by writing online blogs and making videos they will find interesting, she said.
“It’s all about educating people about how to manage their money, how to join a credit union, how to use the resources a credit union hast,” Reeves said. “So it’s like a PR gig for credit unions but it’s actually a fantastic way to educate people my age how to manage their money in general, whether they decide to be in a credit union or not.”
In its first two years, the program is winning new members for the 63 credit unions the Maine Credit Union League serves. According to league spokesman Jon Paradise, 9.61 percent of members as of May 2013 were in the 18- to 25-year-old age bracket, compared with 5 percent in May 2011, when the Young & Free Maine outreach effort began. Credit unions have also seen a 1.9 percent increase in overall memberships since the program began, he said.
“We think we’ve found a way to connect with 18- to 25-year-olds by having someone their age talk to them about issues like student debt, balancing a checkbook, buying their first car, in some cases buying their first house,” Paradise said. “I think it’s been much more relatable to hear it from someone with their own jargon and their own experiences than to have someone in their mid-40s telling and more lecturing them how to do things. So, I think they’ve really connected well with having one of their own generation talking to them about the financial services.”
Reeves, who just moved to Windham to live with her sister and will soon start to pay off about $20,000 worth of student debt, said she can relate to the league’s target demographic, not only because she is that age but because she faces the same issues. Saving money after covering living expenses and paying down debt may be the biggest obstacle of all, she said.
“I think that saving money is hard for young people because through the media and all the celebrities that we see we think we need to live a lavish lifestyle. So I think we’re spending more than we have and still trying to save, but that’s not happening if you’re going to spend more than you have,” Reeves said. “I think it’s an epidemic where we’re living in a time and age that we’re borrowing a lot of money, we’re starting to get in debt younger and younger, going to school is expensive, buying a car is expensive, living on your own is expensive, so I think some people my age just don’t know where to start to save because we have so many expenses.”
Reeves is excited to use her role to help young Mainers to avoid the pitfalls and get on a path toward financial freedom.
“I am hoping to actually make a difference,” she said. “I am hoping that people see me out and about and look at my videos and read my blogs and I hope they learn something from me and hopefully join a credit union and manage their finances better.”