A helping hand for those perplexed by personal finance

If you are like many Canadians, you’re wrestling with debt, and personal finance is only a little less intimidating than quantum physics. An online course offered by top teachers from the Desautels Faculty of Management might help. And it’s free.

Story by Philip Fine

December 2019

Ask the average person about the risks of a high-fat diet, or the benefits of eating more fresh fruit and vegetables, and you will likely hear a well-informed response. But ask them to explain the difference between a stock and a bond, or to make a list of their revenues and expenditures, and you may not hear the same confidence in their voice.

Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou would like to see the public become as knowledgeable about their finances as they are about their diet. Bajeux-Besnainou, the dean of the Desautels Faculty of Management, regards financial literacy as an important issue for her business school to address, listing statistics that point to the worrisome state of our country’s personal finances.

“Right now, about a third of Canadians do not save for retirement, 44 per cent consider themselves living paycheque to paycheque, 40 per cent feel overwhelmed by debt, and Canadians owe $1.69 [in credit card market debt] for every dollar they earn.”

The Faculty is trying to help the public become better informed on an array of personal finance issues by offering a free online course called the McGill Personal Finance Essentials.

Partnering with RBC Future Launch and The Globe and Mail, the course is divided into eight 15- to 25-minute learning modules, each taught by a faculty member at Desautels in a video lecture. Among the modules are Debt & Borrowing (taught by faculty lecturer Amanda Abrams, BCom’07), Realities of Real Estate (taught by associate professor Desmond Tsang), and Behavioural Finance (taught by associate professor Vadim di Pietro, BEng’01).

Launched at the beginning of November and taught in both English and French, the courses have become wildly popular, with enrolment numbers rising far beyond expectations. As of the end of November, nearly 20,000 people had registered for the course.

The idea to create the free personal finance course originated from the RBC desk of a McGill alumna.

Caroline Paxton, BCom’93, the bank’s vice president of media and strategic initiatives, saw the value in such an initiative, but realized that RBC should probably partner with a respected university to make it happen.

“If it was delivered by RBC financial advisors, I think folks would be a little bit more skeptical about the motivation behind it,” she explains. Paxton saw the project as one that meshed well with the goals of the bank’s foundation arm, RBC Future Launch. It counts among its aims a commitment to skills development for Canadian youth.

While having lunch with Bajeux-Besnainou, Paxton shared her thoughts on the still embryonic concept. She says the dean jumped on the idea.

Bajeux-Besnainou remembers it well. “I said, ‘I’m super interested in that.’ Part of the mission of a university is to give back to the community.”

From Paxton’s perspective, McGill seemed like a perfect partner. “It’s an internationally recognized university with a great reputation, but also there’s the French and English component,” referring to the fact that many McGill professors are able to lecture in both languages.

Paxton and Bajeux-Besnainou began brainstorming about the project. They decided multiple professors would keep it dynamic. The dean then looked for an “academic champion” who could organize the subjects and find the right presenters. That’s where Benjamin Croitoru, an associate professor of finance, came in.

Croitoru agreed to take on the role of academic director and began recruiting colleagues. He looked for those who would feel comfortable in front of a camera and whose areas of teaching and research matched one of the course topics. Other members of the team include senior faculty lecturer Sujata Madan (Your Money: Today & Tomorrow), faculty lecturer Don Melville, MBA’00 (Strategic Budget Building,) and senior faculty lecturer Philippe Levy, MBA’90 (The Art of Investing Part 2, with Croitoru teaching Part 1). Bajeux-Besnainou appears in the first module, introducing the course.

The modules’ lectures are well-edited and fast-moving. Key phrases jump onto the screen in friendly fonts, with some animated graphs also popping up alongside the instructor. There are tests at the end of each module.

The content is kept simple. In his module, Croitoru explains the fundamentals of investing, including risk, rate of return, retirement and diversifying your portfolio. “We’re not naturally wired for investment,” says Croitoru. He also spends time in the module on how to protect against classic stock-market mistakes.

Course enrolment is expected to reach 160,000 in two years. Early numbers show that it’s been particularly popular with Ontarians, who make up 40 per cent of enrollees, and with Quebecers at 30 per cent. As for the age of registrants, more than one third are over 46, and almost half say their financial literacy level is low.

For Paxton, the course is “a groundbreaking way to democratize education.” Bajeux-Besnainou, echoes that thought. “We’re making McGill accessible to everybody.”

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