Whether you’re a blogger, author, or community financial educator, as I am, our basic raison d’être is to improve people’s lives by motivating them to practice positive financial behaviors such as saving money and reducing debt. In my three decades of teaching personal finance, I’ve found stories to be the single most powerful educational and motivational tool.

Facts and statistics alone generally don’t change behavior. In fact, they can actually be obstacles to behavior change. Numbers are numbing and people tune out. If you have information you want people to remember and act upon, put it in a story. Think of it like this: nobody ever marched on Washington because of information contained in a PowerPoint presentation or pie chart. They take action due to deep emotional connections to people, events, or issues.

To tell powerful personal finance stories, consider these strategies:

  • Collect motivational anecdotes to illustrate key points. For example, if you’re writing about the 52-Week Money Challenge as a strategy for saving money, do the Challenge yourself and provide updates about your savings progress.
  • Never tell others to do something you would not do yourself. Reality-test your recommendations first to appreciate how hard behavior change really is and to have a success story to tell. Don’t be afraid to describe your failures, either. They make storytellers human and more relatable.
  • Structure your story carefully. Don’t give away the ending too soon. Describe Point A and Point B and all the obstacles in between. Just reaching a goal is not that interesting. People want to know how others overcame the same barriers they have (lack of time, money, etc.) so they feel empowered to change.
  • Replace journalistic storytelling with narrative storytelling. In journalistic style, writers put facts first (who, what, where, when, etc.) because readers have limited time and publications have limited space. In narrative style, you begin with a motivational story and hook people with an emotional response.
  • Make positive financial behavior changes seem “normal” with peer comparisons.Powerful cue words include “you” (for personalization) and “free.” Make people feel that they can be successful.

Recently, several high profile personal finance researchers have shared powerful stories about their personal retirement planning money mistakes as a cautionary tale for younger generations. Alicia Munnell, Director of Boston College Center for Retirement Research, cashed out of a defined benefit pension, a 401(k), and the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan with its razor thin expense ratio. She also kept a large cash asset allocation and only started serious retirement planning in her 50s.

Annamaria Lusardi, an internationally known financial literacy scholar at the George Washington School of Business, got a late start saving for financial goals because she lacked plans with specific targets and delayed using tax-deferred retirement savings plans. Then there’s my story. Always a saver and even studying for the CFP® certification, I, too, lacked future focus. Instead of joining the Rutgers 403(b) plan at age 25, I waited until I was 34. I now have a lot saved but could have saved much more. I realize that now. Nine years of forgone savings early in my career cost me about $1 million (simple Rule of 72 calculation).

Want to change financial behavior? Tell a powerful story!


  • Alicia Munnell Story: http://www.fa-mag.com/news/how-a-harvard-economist-screwed-up–and-then-saved–her-retirement-22480.html?section=43
  • Annamaraia Lusardi Story: http://annalusardi.blogspot.com/. A similar article to this one was originally published in FinCon Connection Issue 4 (2015). Some of the content was derived from a presentation by communications expert Andy Goodman at the 2015 National Urban Extension Conference.

Barbara O’Neill, Ph.D., AFC®, CFP®, holds the rank of Distinguished Professor at Rutgers University and is Rutgers Cooperative Extension’s Specialist in Financial Resource Management. She has written over 1,700 consumer newspaper articles and over 150 articles for academic journals and conference proceedings.  She served as President of AFCPE in 2003 and has received over three dozen awards and over $985,000 in funding to support her financial education programs and research.

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