MADISON, Wis.-After beta-testing its "Debt in Focus" program for a year, the Filene Research Institute has re-launched the online financial assessment tool to improve its effectiveness and drive CU growth.

Debt in Focus is linked to via the CU's website, and a simple four-step program analyzes consumers' debt, income, and expenses, and then provides a report, including a financial action plan (Credit Union Journal, May 21, 2009). The resource has been retooled based on feedback from the 288 credit unions that participated in the pilot, and from consumers.

Based on how Debt in Focus has been used, it's an excellent supplement to financial counseling, explained Matt Davis, applied research consultant at Filene. "It will never replace one-to-one counseling, but the goal of Debt in Focus is to reach people who are not being reached by financial counselors. These are people who are scared by financial jargon and who are intimidated about talking about their finances."

Beta-test feedback indicated Debt is Focus appeals to consumers because it is anonymous and simple to use. It was also effective in engaging Gens X and Y, with the average age of users being 36. "It does not take long to get through," Davis said. "Basically, it is four different screens with drop-down menus. There is a section for income, debt, expenses, and then the final report. Some people get through in as little as five minutes."

The re-launched Debt in Focus, which currently has about 200 CUs signed up, also drives consumers to areas of the credit union's website for product information.

"Credit unions wanted Debt in Focus to become a lead-generation or business-enhancement tool," Davis said. "In the new version anyplace there are key words about a product, we map those words back to the section of the CU's website that talks about the product or service. We also added a way for the user to be contacted by the credit union if they want more information."

Marketing support, too, comes with the re-launched version, which Filene discovered is necessary to drive high usage. Debt is Focus was not accessed as frequently during the beta test when CUs simply placed a link on their website and did not advertise. A social networking site for CUs to help each other has also been created.

One of the biggest changes to the tool, according to Davis, is including expenses in the debt analysis. "The original Debt in Focus had debt and income sections, but without asking about expenses it's not easy to complete a budget plan." Credit unions also asked if the tool could be customized to have the CU's own branding, and that has been accomplished with the re-release.

Davis said that during the beta test the $5.1-billion America First CU, Ogden, Utah, used Debt in Focus to take some of the burden off its financial counselors. "America First has a very good financial counseling program, but sometimes members wait a month and a half to get in. So the credit union made Debt in Focus a prerequisite to get into the counseling. It helped members come into the one-to-one sessions better prepared, which saved counselors time and made them more effective. The tool also weeded out people who just needed the Debt in Focus information, so that reduced the counselors' workload."

Debt in Focus charges a one-time $150 setup fee and then $1,199 annually for non-Filene members and $599 for members. The size of the CU does not affect pricing.

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