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Together Program supports couples through free workshops

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Posted on: August 11, 2021

By James Cirrone

Couples have been turning to the nonprofit Together Program for financial education, which the program has provided, free of charge, since it was founded in 2015. The program also helps couples learn how to cope with stress and communicate better with each other.

Dr. Mariana Falconier, a project director with the program and an associate professor of family sciences at the University of Maryland (UMD), said that the curriculum she helped develop is unique in how it integrates building financial literacy along with relationship skills.

“We are not just teaching relationship education,” Falconier said. “We’re using the topic of money to actually teach couples about important skills for their relationship.”

Falconier’s partner in the venture is Dr. Jinhee Kim, an accredited financial counselor and a professor of family sciences at UMD, where she’s been since 2000. Kim said that she has trained over 2000 people in financial literacy during the two decades that she’s been at UMD. Falconier and Kim partnered in 2013 to create the Together Program.

Both Falconier and Kim stressed that the program is not couples counseling, nor is it a financial advice seminar. Attendees enroll in 6-week workshops; each workshop typically has four to 10 couples and is professionally led. Separate workshops are offered in English and Spanish, and the facilitators guide couples through activities that encourage them to talk openly about issues. One such activity uses rocks as a metaphor for stressors in participants’ lives. 

“They have to label those rocks and put them in the bag, and so they start adding and adding and adding all these sources of stress in their lives,” Falconier said. “They end up with these very big, heavy bags of rocks.”

Once participants have labeled each rock with something that’s a personal stressor, they remove the rocks from the bag that amount to unnecessary stressors.

“People struggle a lot,” Falconier said. “It’s the whole process of really looking with your partner at that bag and saying, ‘What should not be there? What can we take out?’”

“People love it,” Falconier added. 

Participants also play a game, “Money Habitudes,” which helps them understand their relationships to money. Each participant plays with a stack of cards with statements along the lines of “I like giving away money” and “I like to save a certain amount of money per year.” When they agree with a statement, players flip over that card to read a statement on the back that describes a facet of their relationship with money. By playing the game, some participants learn new things about themselves ― maybe that they’re carefree with money, that they like to give it away or that they use it to increase their status. 

Falconier said that when each person in a couple understands how they handle money, the couple can work together to  figure out “how they’re going to manage their finances in a way that is understanding of each other’s styles.”

While the Together Program aims to increase participants’ financial literacy, it offers them support in other ways, too. At the start of each workshop series, couples are assigned a case manager who works with them to ensure that their basic needs are met ― that they have adequate health-care support, have enough food and can put a roof over their head. Case managers work with their couples throughout the four and a half months that they are in the program.

Falconier underscored that the case managers are resourceful. “They assess the needs of the couple and the family members living with them in all areas. If you have a need in an area, the case manager finds resources in the community, usually free or low income,” she noted.

The Together Program is funded by a grant from the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services’s Administration for Children and Families. The program received approximately $6.5 million in their initial 5-year grant cycle, which ended in September 2020. A second grant, of $5 million, will fund the program for the next five years.

Kim stressed that the couples in the Together Program often don’t have access to support they might benefit from, including mental health services — she has seen couples struggle. 

“The couples that we were serving were having very difficult times,” Kim said. “There are really no resources for the low to moderate income couples in the area. … [getting adequate help] is quite expensive.”

Falconier noted that the program seeks to help couples who have lower incomes and have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

“We think that our program can really make a difference in those communities, particularly after COVID-19,” Falconier said. 

Prior to the pandemic, the Together Program offered in-person workshops. When Gov. Hogan mandated closures, in March 2020, it took just two weeks for Falconier, Kim and their 20 workshop facilitators to pivot and offer virtual workshops. The virtual sessions have been popular, with 240 couples participating. The Together Program hopes to return to in-person workshops this fall, providing it is safe to do so.

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