By Ted Gonder, Founder & CEO of Moneythink

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, I was at the University of Chicago on a full ride as the financial markets collapsed. Between classes on economic theory, I’d commute to my South Side job each day and pass boarded up shops, payday loan outfits, and widespread poverty. In an effort to help bridge the socioeconomic gap, my friends and I started a tutoring program for Chicago teens. Instead of focusing on academics, we focused on the important stuff: money.

Quickly, our financial mentoring program spread to university communities across the country, spurring thousands of transformational relationships between under-resourced teens and their local near-peer college financial mentors. As our initial direct-service program started to reach meaningful levels of scale, we realized we were missing a big opportunity to create an even more impactful experience and reach orders of magnitude more students.

The opportunity? Technology.


Over 70% of our students had smartphones, and almost all of our students had some kind of cellular device. Even in the lowest-income communities. In most cases, these devices were our students’ primary means of connectivity. So we began building Moneythink’s mobile and web-based solutions to help reach out students outside the classroom and closer to the moments when they were making financial decisions. This move allowed us to positively influence their spending and savings behaviors, help them set and achieve financial goals, and gather stronger data on our impact so we could optimize and improve our student experience faster.

Since our founding, Moneythink has spread to 30 communities across the country and we have mentored over 12,000 students, helping them spend mindfully, set and achieve savings goals, qualify for financial aid, a budget for expenses, balance work with their course load, and set up bank accounts.

Our programs have proven very successful. Students from several years ago, right here in Chicago, are becoming the first in their families to graduate from top colleges. These students credit Moneythink as a primary reason for their ability to navigate the complex financial decisions of adulthood and higher education. We see the behavioral results every day. Last summer in Chicago, through a partnership with After School Matters, we were able to get the number of students cashing their checks up from 66% to 88%, and our mentoring efforts led to 37% of unbanked students opening accounts on their own.

Recently, we’ve doubled our efforts around a new initiative to focus on financial capability for postsecondary persistence. In the last two decades the price of college has increased by over 50%, and every year nearly 3.5 million young adults drop out due to financial stress. To solve this problem at scale, we’re leveraging technology to provide each student with free college financial coaching that’s 100% individualized and instantly accessible.

Using trained college counselors, we’ve launched the first SMS-based financial coaching intervention for under-resourced youth and are seeing huge results. Our counselors report that students open up about their college and financial anxieties over text far more than they ever would in person. We’re able to help students apply for financial aid, choose best-fit colleges, navigate loan packages, show up for their first day, and make it to their last. This program will reach over 4,000 students by the end of 2017, and we plan to double year over year for the foreseeable future.

Moneythink has been able to scale and provide more value to students at the bottom of the pyramid thanks to our position as a tech nonprofit, but entrepreneurship is not always easy when you sit at the intersection of tech and nonprofit. In 2014 Moneythink went through the Fast Forward tech nonprofit accelerator, a program that provides capital, community, connections, and visibility to tech startups leveraging a nonprofit business model to achieve impact. If other entrepreneurs and funders truly want to solve some of the world’s toughest problems, we need more programs like the Fast Forward accelerator and tech nonprofit summit, Accelerate Good Global to exist. They are crucial for our success and the advancement of our mission, and help us stay connected to the world class network of impact technology innovators that the community has cultivated.