Information, Not Advice: How to Handle User’s Financial Literacy Questions

Your library might hesitate to offer financial literacy programming because of concerns about giving financial advice or setting up an opportunity for uncomfortable money questions. These concerns might be hard to navigate at first, but if the entire library staff is appropriately trained on handling financial literacy-related questions, you can mitigate these issues.

Photo of cash with a yellow question mark on top.
When dealing with questions about money, keep calm and have tools ready to share.

Earlier this year, our FLIG colleagues at Plano Public Library shared how to start building foundation financial literacy skills with your employees. The tips here are a great way to get ready to offer financial literacy education at your library. But what happens when the questions start rolling in, or you kick off a new program?

Be prepared

“I am not a financial professional. I am providing information and education. You will need to consult a financial professional if you need advice.”

Memorize those sentences. Get comfortable saying them. You should give a disclaimer ahead of any financial literacy education session, and you might want to give a disclaimer any time a library user asks you a financial question that indicates they could be asking for advice.

Sometimes, it can be hard to know where the line is between education or information and advice. You might also have a patron who pushes you to tell them what you would do in their situation or to give your opinion. Similar to medical and legal topics, this is just not something we can do as library professionals. It is important to establish these boundaries and ensure that all library employees are aware of them. Anticipating these kinds of questions and practicing your response can help reduce anxiety about saying the wrong thing.

Bring your toolkit

Knowing where to point library users for trustworthy financial information can also take the pressure off library employees. There are a number of credible agencies and organizations that provide financial education, information and tools that can help people determine where to go for advice.

For questions related to consumer finances, like credit cards, loans and mortgages, point your user to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). The CFPB provides not only information, but they can also provide help if your patron has a financial complaint to report. Additionally, they have a question-and-answer style website, Ask CFPB, that might have just the information your user is looking for, in a format that is easy to use and understand.

Questions about investing are also common. You can certainly tell someone what the difference between a stock and a bond is, or what it means when the yield curve inverts. But you shouldn’t be helping someone decide how or where to invest. You also do not want to point them to a specific portfolio management firm or financial planner for advice.

Groups like the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) have free tools that allow consumers to investigate financial professionals before seeking their advice. Send them to Broker Check if they want information about investment professionals. It’s also important to be aware of local groups who may be able to provide assistance to those with specific financial needs. Pull together a resource list that might include contact information for the Agency on Aging, 311 assistance lines, Social Security and similar offices.

Can you intervene?

While you might be worried about questions that are inappropriate to answer, you might also face situations where a library user asks for general assistance, and you realize they may be implicating themselves in a financial scam, such as wiring money, or providing bank information electronically to someone they do not know. It’s good to be aware of the current scams circulating in the country, or even in your local area. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) provide bulletins on current frauds and scams, as well as reporting tools.

You can certainly mention to the library user that you think something is suspicious, and you would like to get them more information before helping them. For example, they might say the IRS has called them demanding money. These are frequent scams that target nearly anyone with a phone. The IRS will never call you; they send letters. The scam alerts and bulletins from the FTC and SEC can help you give reliable information to the user before they do something they might regret. Ultimately, however, it is the user’s decision.

Take your time

As library workers, we often feel a sense of urgency to help people; we want to give them an answer right away! We also want to please our users, so saying “No, I cannot do that,” might be hard. But when it comes to potentially thorny issues like money, it’s important to take your time and keep your calm.

Point them to resources where they can learn more and make their own informed decisions. Stand your ground on your boundaries. After all, it’s their money, not yours.

Emily Mross is a business librarian at Penn State University Libraries. This blog post is part of a series written by ALA's Financial Literacy Interest Group and sponsored by the FINRA Investor Education Foundation.