Most clinical social workers can tell you some version of the same story:

Someone shows up with a problem. Maybe it’s mental health issues. Maybe it’s medical problems. Maybe it’s unemployment or food insecurity… often, it’s all the above.

That’s when those trusty social work skills leap into action. Line up therapy through a community counseling resource. Find a clinic that accepts Medicaid, work out appointments and follow-up. Arrange training for a job, get SNAP benefits started. Do everything it takes to address the immediate issues and set the client up to get back on their feet.

Then it happens: someone hits your client’s car and totals it. Their transportation is gone, and they don’t have money saved to replace it. Goodbye job, goodbye counseling and medical appointments.

Or maybe the car is fine. Maybe they show up every day, do great at work. But they have no bank account, nowhere reputable to cash the checks. There goes a percentage of every paycheck to a shady check cashing place. Or payments to old outstanding debts eat up everything that comes in the door. Or once the money comes in, they splurge on a new X-box for the kids before setting some aside for a rainy-day fund.

For all your effort, their lives may be no better than before. And it alls comes down to one common cause.

Financial Considerations Have Fallen Out of Style in Social Work Settings

financial social worker helping couple

When you think of finance, you think about spreadsheets, skyscrapers on Wall Street, line charts cutting jagged trends across the plot.

But that all disguises the very human elements in the economic world. All those digits mean something to someone. At the tips of those peaks and valleys are lives, better or worse for the change. With the shifts, there’s real human need, suffering, or opportunity.

For these reasons, economics plays a crucial role in the work of every social worker. Whether it’s the bigger macroeconomic picture that is shuttering local factories and leaving individuals unable to support themselves, or a gambling problem that reduces a once comfortable family to poverty, finances underly many of the troubles that social workers deal with every day.

The more you look, the more you see it: Money problems are an integral part of many social problems.

But for many social workers, that factor takes on the shape of gravity in their daily work—simply an outside force to be reckoned with. Few are taught the theory or practice of coaching clients through financial difficulties.

Financial social work offers new tools and a new specialization to directly address the economic factors facing Americans in need.

Financial Social Work Recognizes the Elephant in the Room with Many Social Problems

Sometimes, even frequently, financial matters are at the heart of other harms that social workers deal with. Indeed, the very concept of vulnerability in populations that social workers are dedicated to assisting is in some way built around financial need:

piggy bank
  • Child welfare is often an issue due to the financial situation of the parents or the community in which the children live
  • Dealing with aging populations comes as they face challenges in being able to afford healthcare and the cost of living
  • Individuals in mental health crisis or with issues of addiction suffer difficulties holding down jobs or managing their own financial affairs
  • Anyone with developmental disabilities similarly will have trouble managing finances or providing for their own financial well-being
  • Occupational social work is tied to a person’s ability to hold down a job and earn a living

And of course, there are the more immediate and direct issues of poverty that are regular features in the American social work landscape: food insecurity, homelessness, debt, and other immediate issues are a consequence of financial troubles.

When you go through the list of social work specialties, you’ll see how they are almost all rooted in financial matters in one way or another.

Even the larger concerns of social work, on the community, national, and global scales can tie into economics and finance. Wealth translates to power. Groups without it are those that become marginalized, neglected, and discriminated against.

Finance Plays a Big Role in Some of Today’s Most Pressing Social Work Policy Issues

The social work community has been intensely focused on the results of increasing income inequality in the United States. Since the 1980s, the gap between the richest and poorest Americans has been growing. According to Pew Research, upper-income families now get just about half of all money earned in the U.S., where their share was only 29 percent in the ‘70s.

salary comparison

In fact, in the aftermath of the Great Recession, the wealthiest 20 percent of the country has been the only group to see any gains in their net worth. The rising tide has stopped lifting all boats; only the first-class passengers, with a more sophisticated view of finance and often professional money management advice, are going up.

Understanding financial matters and incorporating them into social work is no longer optional for addressing any of these issues. Social workers must develop a more robust set of practices and tools for financial equity and economic justice.

Finances Were Once Front-And-Center in American Social Work Practice

woman sitting in doorway

Of course, the impact of finances and the economy on social inequity isn’t exactly a new development. At the dawn of the profession of social work, in the late 1800s, a sort of financial counseling was considered an essential part of the profession.

In the earliest days of social work, the modern reflex of withholding judgment wasn’t so much a feature. The charitable efforts that enlisted the earliest social workers were largely rooted in faith.

So, it was common for those first social workers to preach the values of thrift and industry to clients. Both came with clear Biblical supports; both were seen as building character along with financial sense. Social workers would lay out practical steps toward budgeting and savings.

By the 1920s, the social work field had shifted more toward psychosocial practice and left basic household budgeting and management skills to home economics. By the time of the Great Depression, some social work agencies even employed a home economist for consultation. But in the great expansion of federal services, economics as a function of social work was largely left behind.

The Return of Financial Social Work

That state of affairs is changing quickly in the social work community. Finance has gone from a taboo topic to a major concern in both social work and social work education since the 1990s.

homeless encampment

In 2016, building financial capability for all was listed as one of the eleven grand challenges in social work by the American Academy of Social Work & Social Welfare.

Two events led more directly to a recognition of the importance of financial social work.

The first was the great debate and resulting policy reforms of the public welfare system of the United States in the 1980s and 1990s. Concerns about dependency on government supports led to legislation that emphasized a return to work. That shifted a great deal of responsibility for financial planning and management back onto individuals in poverty.

The second was the Great Recession. Over a two-year period beginning in 2007, unemployment skyrocketed to more than 9 percent, personal income dropped by over eight percent, and thousands of workers lost their jobs and left the workforce entirely.

As it was set off by a crisis in the housing sector, the recession had the added impact of throwing many people out of their homes. According to data from the St. Louis Fed, mortgages that were delinquent or in active foreclosure popped from a level of around two percent to nearly 12 percent in 2009. More than six million families lost their homes.

Social Workers and Clients Face a Complex Financial Environment Today

money tornado

Not only are social work clients more likely to be in worse financial shape, but they are also operating in a far more complicated financial landscape than before.

The world of household finance is a far more sophisticated place than it was even two decades ago. Exploding options in bank accounts, personal loans, and credit lines are more difficult to sort through than ever. Can you Venmo your utility bill, or should you set up direct withdrawal? Is Apple Pay the right choice at the local grocer? What can you do if a local restaurant stops taking cash payments? What is a credit score and how do you improve it?

There’s a lot more to sort through, and many pitfalls for the unwary. A 2016 study by FINRA, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, found that only about a third of all Americans could answer four out of five basic questions about financial practices.

That lack of knowledge leads to new vulnerabilities all their own. For example, around a quarter of low-income households don’t have a checking or savings account, and another 25 percent use expensive and unsafe alternatives. The numbers are even worse among racial and ethnic minorities.

As social workers are well aware, though, just because vulnerable populations create the most cases, anyone from any background can catch a run of bad luck. The widespread lack of financial knowledge among Americans creates opportunities for service in both traditional and non-traditional social work populations.

What Does a Financial Social Worker Do?

talking finances

Although the importance of financial tools for social workers extends across the profession, a new specialization is emerging: the financial social worker.

These practitioners take the bull by the horns. They develop financial knowledge and advisory skills specifically to help clients improve their financial position, not just as part of delivering other social services.

The big promise behind financial social work is to help families achieve financial well-being. As a prerequisite for many other kinds of stability and well-being, putting the financial piece first is a natural step for financial social workers.

The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) defines financial well-being as:

  • Having control over day-to-day and month-to-month finances
  • Having the financial freedom to make choices that allow enjoyment of life
  • Having the capacity to absorb a financial shock
  • Being on track to meet financial goals

Student Loan Debt: A Financial Challenge Many Social Workers are Familiar with

student loan past due

Social workers know almost better than anyone how much education can change lives. After all, most social workers hold a master’s degree or higher. The skills and knowledge they develop through that process not only allows them to make a living, but to assist thousands of other people over the course of a career.

It’s a good investment—but one that’s more expensive than ever. That’s why one of the first serious initiatives in financial social work has been the movement to cancel student loan debt.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, around 40 percent of undergraduate students received loans for the 2020/21 school year. Looking back to graduates from 2016, the total outstanding amount four years after completion was $45,300.

Backed by the National Association of Social Workers, President Biden took unilateral action to cancel some $20,000 in student loan debt for tens of millions of people in 2022. Although the effort remains tied up in court, it’s an important step toward financial solvency for millions of Americans buried under debt… including many social workers!

As with other types of social work, you can come at the difficulties of financial social work from both the macro and micro levels.

Micro Financial Social Work Is All About Individuals and Families

empty wallet

As a trained social worker, you’ll immediately spot the connections between poor financial judgement and a litany of personal issues. Everything from family history to poor self-image can feed into the emotional topic of money management. It only makes sense that you won’t fully fix those issues through education alone. The kind of practical, holistic intervention that social workers specialize in has to be part of the package.

That’s where the micro, or clinical, level of financial social work practice shines. It involves direct interventions with individuals and families. Just as with any other kind of clinical social work, this work involves the flexibility and creativity to match expertise to actual real-world problems. No two engagements for a financial social worker are the same. Yet they will draw on many of the same concepts and tools when working with any client.

The social work approach to building financial well-being has largely revolved around the concept of Financial Capability and Asset Building, or FCAB.

Giving Clients Agency by Building Their Financial Capability

Financial capability is the first piece. It involves developing a client’s financial knowledge and skills to the point where they can manage their finances toward their individual goals. It also requires advocating for or otherwise developing access to financial products and services.

Together, that’s the opportunity and the ability to act. That’s the seed financial freedom grows from.

Building Assets to Assure Long-Term Well-Being

Asset Building is about putting financial capabilities to work. Assets are the tangible and financial resources that offer stability and flexibility in life. Assets are the leverage that people build and can then apply to needs like:

  • Funding their children’s education
  • Paying for healthcare services
  • Assuring housing security
  • Buying a car and developing transportation independence

Assets represent a cushion for the inevitable setbacks that everyone may face at any stage of life.

The process for developing FCAB is still being worked out. As a practical matter, social workers engage in a similar process to other types of clinical social work:

Assessing the Financial Status of Clients at Any Income Level

Something you learn fast in financial social work education is that it doesn’t matter so much what the numbers are: if there is more going out than coming in, you’ve got problems.

Financial social workers review income, income opportunities, assets, expenses, credit, and the other common elements of a personal balance sheet. They combine the accounting elements of the project with a more holistic view of economic pressures on their client’s finances. They are familiar with the impact of inequity arising from systemic or direct discrimination. They understand the impact of major healthcare crises. They know the difficulty of coping with a family member’s addiction or disability.

All of that can factor into their assessment and get incorporated into direct counseling work.

Engaging in Direct Counseling and Education in Money Management

That overarching understanding of situations outside of finance itself can make financial social worker advice more practical than the average financial advisor. Social workers can also deliver it in a way that clients may be more likely to hear and act on.

The scope of counseling work for financial social workers is largely educational. They have techniques to help teach healthy perspectives on analyzing consumption patterns. They offer links to resources for tax and insurance assistance and can explain state welfare policies. They may offer specific coaching on individual financial situations.

Direct counseling may be where the bulk of the time is spent as a financial social worker. It can involve exploring:

  • Individual spending triggers and management strategies to keep spending under control
  • Setting financial boundaries and systematizing financial choices to develop healthier outcomes
  • Exploring income sources and developing proactive ways to increase money coming in
  • Setting goals and developing budgets for ongoing income and spending
signing up

Directing Clients to Resources and Assistance in Financial Matters

All the counseling in the world can’t help if clients simply don’t have access to the kind of services and financial products needed for financial well-being. So financial social workers are also advocates and facilitators. They may:

  • Refer clients to consulting and assistance services
  • Assist with applications for income supports
  • Help fill out forms and paperwork for various financial services
  • Coordinate with credit counseling or other financial assistance programs on behalf of clients

All these steps and this work may be in tandem with providing more typical social services. They might also happen as a stand-alone process addressing financial well-being by itself.

Financial Social Work Also Happens Above the Clinical Level

social justice

While individual attitudes and relationships with money can be factors in financial hardship, social workers are also familiar with the ways that the system can grind down individual finances. All the therapy and phone calls in the world won’t change the fact that a Black family will pay higher interest rates on a home loan than a white family, even with a higher income level in many cases.

Fortunately, social work is well-versed with large-scale economic advocacy.

The mezzo and macro levels of financial social work are more familiar ground for social workers.

Social workers have, after all, played an important part in many of the improvements in the economic lives of Americans in general that have occurred over the past century.

At the policy level, social workers have been some of the biggest advocates of programs ranging from the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and dozens of state-run programs in between. That all required a fundamental understanding of the financial impacts and benefits of those programs. Social workers helped work out the excruciating detail that went into the legislation for those crucial supports.

Social workers have also been some of the most adept on-the-ground researchers, building connections between economic forces and population needs. There’s a robust history of research exploring the paths into poverty and the roots of economic inequities. Particularly in areas where social trends and biases have led to financial hardship, social workers are often the ones making the connections.

Policy Work Benefits from the Input of Financial Social Workers

financial social worker meeting with client

Although social work has scored some big wins in economic equality, it can seem like there are more threats than ever to American financial well-being. So many of these are systemic in nature that financial social workers sometimes feel they can have the biggest impact by positioning themselves to influence policy.

At the macro level, financial social workers are taking on the same kind of big picture, community-wide issues as they do in substance abuse or healthcare. Economics is a wide net, and the tides that sweep a town, region, or nation can trawl up a lot of individuals as they drag that net through. Searching for economic justice on a broad scale can do good for many thousands of families in financial peril.

That can mean addressing issues like:

  • Equitable access to credit – Without access to conventional consumer finance services, low-income individuals face many other challenges in daily life. Transportation, rental opportunities, and the ability to weather minor financial setbacks are all vastly degraded by lack of access to credit.
  • Options in financial services – People in poverty have so little money and stability that they have limited access to traditional lending and banking services. Financial social workers may get involved in new and innovative solutions like micro-loans, alternative payment processors, and digital access for individuals without the time or transportation to use regular financial services.
poor credit report
  • Offering adequate economic supports – Constant financial threats are both an economic and a mental health threat. So financial social workers are experts in getting clients connected to various official support systems like SNAP and TANF. They may also suggest and help arrange unofficial solutions, arranging for temporary housing, personal guarantors, or other ways to shore up shaky financial situations.
  • Taming extreme economic inequality – Both on a national and international level, social workers have noted the negative effects of extreme income and wealth inequality. With the entire growth in income going to the top 10 percent of earners in the past decades, individuals already on the edge of poverty are in many cases going backward. Finding society-level answers to this issue through tax policy and public assistance is part of the financial social work agenda.
  • Squashing predatory financial practices – All the pressures above leave folks at the bottom of the economic ladder with few choices for financial services. That creates an environment where unscrupulous businesses take advantage with exorbitant interest rates, obscene penalties, and unclear requirements. Pushing legislation and regulation to cut back on those practices is a key financial social work action item at the macro level.

Making Financial Systems Work Equitably Is Also a Job for Financial Social Workers

loan center

There’s a robust role at the mezzo, or intermediate level, for financial social workers also. The complexity of the financial system leads to a lot of form-filling, box-checking, and phone dialing to get accounts set up and straightened out.

While clinical financial social workers are on hand to support clients directly through such activities, there is plenty of room for social services agencies to create new services to assist individuals and communities in building financial well-being.

Financial tools are a valuable addition to the social work toolbox. With economics laying at the root of so many of the other issues social workers tackle, trying to address them only through psychosocial means is like working with one hand tied behind their back. The practice of financial social work develops a comfort level with the financial realities of clients and realistic tools to improve those realities.

Defining Roles for Financial Social Workers Is a Work in Progress

signing documents

With as many touch points as exist between the world of economics and that of social work, there’s a lot of territory left for financial social workers to explore. The profession is still finding its place both within social work, and within financial counseling and advising in general.

The absence of financial counseling from social workers created a gap that other professions have been jumping into. Certified Financial Therapists, Accredited Financial Counselors, Financial Fitness Coaches, and Certified Financial Advisors have all dipped their toes into practices that resemble financial social work.

So, as you start to explore the practice of financial social work, it’s worth getting familiar with typical roles that already exist in the world of personal finance:

  • Financial Therapists – Financial therapists expressly take the skillset of financial planners and combine it with the emotional aspects of money management. Their focus is narrower than a financial social worker. They explore client behaviors, fiscal status, goal-setting, and vehicles for financial well-being, but don’t connect to official services and don’t perform clinical counseling work. They may be certified but are not licensed.
  • Financial Counselors – Financial counselors exist very much on the practical end of the spectrum. They are often the primary resource that lower-income individuals have access to in the absence of financial social workers. They deal almost entirely with the nuts-and-bolts aspects of financial management, helping clients manage credit, create budgets, pay down debt, and save toward explicit goals. Again, they may earn a professional certification, but do not require licensing, and can’t offer clinical services.
reviewing documents
  • Financial Coaches – Coaches are personal advisors who work one-on-one with clients on a broad range of financial issues. They could help clients define goals or address specific issues. They have a broad perspective that allows a lot of tailoring to individual beliefs, perspectives, and attitudes toward money. They may earn either counseling or therapy certifications, or earn a special financial fitness coach designation, but are not licensed.
  • Financial Advisors – Financial advisors work at the high end of the income range. They must be licensed to provide financial advice. They often also hold professional certification in various advisory roles, like Certified Financial Planner, Chartered Financial Analyst, or Chartered Financial Consultant. Although there’s not much crossover between a high-flying investment advisor and a financial social worker in terms of clientele, the concepts, goals, and tools used may be similar.

As a financial social worker, you may work hand-in-hand with other professions involved in financial counseling and advice.

Of course, there are also restrictions on financial social work practice. These are shaped by existing regulation covering both social worker licensing and laws that many states have regarding who may legally offer financial advice. In short, the laws designed to protect individuals from bad or unscrupulous financial advice apply to social workers just like anyone else.

Your education as a financial social worker should cover concepts like fiduciary responsibility and what does or does not constitute financial advice. It can be a fine line to walk, but in the end the goal is the same as social work itself: enhance the financial well-being of society.

The Vimes Boot Index

work boots

Leave it to a writer of fantastic comedies to put into words a theory of economics that academics through the ages have had trouble describing.

Terry Pratchett, an English fantasy author, introduced the Sam Vimes Boots Theory of Socioeconomic Unfairness in his novel Men at Arms. The character Vimes observes that a good pair of boots costs fifty dollars, but he himself can afford only the cheaper ten-dollar pairs. Although they wear out in a year, Vimes can’t go without. And because he’s spending $10 each year, he can’t save up for the better pair that would last longer.

A richer man, however, could afford the fifty bucks. He’d pay the cost once and have a pair of boots that might last ten years.

At the end of that same decade, though, Vimes would end up spending twice as much to keep himself shod and would still have wet feet.

This is one of the mechanisms that go into the cycle of poverty in the real world, and it’s far less amusing. But anti-poverty campaigner Jack Monroe has put the idea to good use by creating a price index called the Vimes Boot Index that tracks the increase of basic food products often sold to low-income families… and how that differs from cost changes in the price index of wealthier individuals.

How Can You Become a Financial Social Worker?

meeting and smiling

The path to becoming a financial social worker is not yet set in stone.

Although including financial advice and counseling services, and advocating for economic justice, have long been part of the social work agenda, the emergence of financial social work as a specialty is a pretty new development.

That means the traditional tracks into social work require a little extra attention and effort for anyone specializing in finance. On the other hand, it also means there are plenty of opportunities for forging your own way in this new and exciting field.

Financial Social Work Certification Offers a Recognizable Credential in the Specialty

giving to homeless

Although you may have to work a little harder to get the education and credentials for becoming a financial social worker, you can now at least gain official recognition for your expertise. NASW, the National Association of Social Workers, accredited the Center for Financial Social Work in 2013 to offer instruction and certification as a Certified Financial Social Worker.

Although the program is NASW accredited, counselors or other educators who are not licensed in social work can complete the same course and earn a Certified Financial Social Work Counselor or Certified Financial Social Work Educator/Coach credential.

With a six-month timeframe, the CFSW is a relatively fast program to complete. Applicants must:

  • Complete a self-paced course of five interactive lesson modules
  • Pass an open-book financial knowledge exam
  • Hold a MSW, BSW, or a degree in counseling or psychology

Personalized support is offered throughout the process. Membership with the Financial Health & Wellness Professional Community comes along with the price of certification, offering ongoing networking and support.

The program also covers twenty credits of continuing education contact hours, valid in nearly 40 states toward keeping your social work license current.

The certification program costs $695, although a new “Pay What You Can” option introduces more affordable levels for candidates who have trouble with the expense.

What Kind of Degree Should You Get to Perform Financial Social Work?

As with any other social work specialty, the college education you receive lays the foundation for financial social work.

Unlike those other specialties, there isn’t a strong, universally-accepted, well-established pattern for financial social work education.

According to research published in the Journal of Social Work Education in 2017, around half of social work education programs didn’t include skill-building or information on economic self-sufficiency. Those that did, did not present consistent ideas and concepts around it.

The concepts and practices used in financial social work may be taught differently at various levels of education. The right choice for your goals will depend on what type of social work you plan to take on, as well as what stage of your career you are in.

Finding Financial Social Work Degrees at a Level That Matches Your Needs

doing class work

Most of the efforts that have been put into developing social work curriculum around financial matters have been at the master’s level. The MSW, or Master of Social Work, remains the gold standard for clinical practice in the profession.

Financial social work is still social work, and at the clinical level, it is still a licensed profession in all fifty states. At every level of the profession where licensure is required, financial social workers need to comply with state licensing requirements. That almost always requires an MSW.

But it’s possible to engage in different types of financial social work with degrees at almost any level in the field.

A Bachelor of Social Work, or BSW, is accepted for licensing for some roles in some states. The four-year course of study is among the broadest of any type of degree, which can make it the ideal place to pick up accounting and financial skills even outside the program itself. With general critical thinking and problem-solving skills as well as extensive historical and practical social work training, a bachelor’s grad can make a real impact both personally or at the mezzo or macro levels.

An Associate Degree in Social Work delivers roughly half the education that comes with a BSW. Yet it’s enough that you can get started in basic office roles, or even as a go-to resource in social service agencies that offer clients financial counseling services.

At the other end of the spectrum, the PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) or DSW (Doctor of Social Work) deliver the most advanced knowledge in the field. With the ability to tailor your studies to your specific area of interest, these in-depth programs can take your financial social work education as far as it can go… or further, as you engage in research and ground-breaking independent study in the field.

Of course, as with any new development in the field, it’s entirely possible that the idea of offering financial support services is hitting you after you’ve already earned your degree. But as is often the case, many schools that are breaking ground in financial social work training are starting to offer exactly the options you need, like post-degree Certificates in Financial Social Work.

These often come with valid continuing education credits, too, so they can apply toward your license maintenance if you’re already in the field.

As with any social work degree, it’s still important to choose a program that holds full accreditation from CSWE, the Council on Social Work Education. Financial social work, after all, still requires all the basic ethical, psychological, and communications skills you need for any social work job.

Curriculum standards laid out by CSWE call for social work degrees to cover economic justice and well-being. But they don’t have a lot to say about how to help clients get there.

Work Is Underway on a Comprehensive Curriculum for Financial Social Work Education

stack of library books

There are lights in the wilderness of financial social work education to show the way, however.

Some schools of social work have struck up partnerships with financial programs at their colleges, creating tracks that allow dual certification as an Accredited Financial Counselor or similar.

The Financial Social Work Initiative (FSWI) at the University of Maryland’s School of Social Work has been working to include financial social work content into the Master of Social Work curriculum plan. And CSWE has partnered with the Center for Social Development at Washington University to create the Economic Well-Being in Social Work Education Project.

FSWI also offers a periodic Financial Social Work Certificate program and continuing education coursework in financial social work.

Between the two, the outline of an effective curriculum for financial social workers is coming into shape. Some schools are adopting these recommendations directly. In other cases, individual students can use electives and personal initiative to cover the important subjects they highlight.

The 32 modules proposed by the CSWE/WU project offer a comprehensive approach to financial social work training.

stressed over bills

The initial coursework explores the idea of FCAB from a social work perspective, while a second module builds basic practice knowledge in household finance topics. The third section explores professional social work practice at the clinical level, as well as policy and program levels.

The design of the program is such that it can be offered as stand-alone instruction, such as in a Social Work Certificate program, or integrated into social work curriculum at any degree level.

The FSWI model takes a slightly different approach. They incorporate the overall CSWE competency model and draw in finance-specific subjects for each of those nine focus areas.

Putting Together Your Own Financial Social Work Curriculum

finance student

The nuts and bolts of financial social work curriculum proposed in both the FSWI and CSWE/WU guidance offer a blueprint for students at schools that have not yet created official coursework in the field.

In fact, there’s almost too much to draw on. You might need to narrow your focus within the broad strokes of financial social work.

The coursework draws from many disciplines, from accounting to history. At a minimum, classes will cover topics such as:

  • The history of financial instruction and literacy
  • Economic policy
  • Cash management and basic financial concepts like savings, interest, and budgeting
  • Financial decision making
  • Credit and Debt
  • Asset protection through insurance, diversity, and risk management

And, naturally, you need traditional clinical social work skills to put together with those concepts.

The biggest challenge might be finding internship and practicum placements that offer real-world financial social work practice. But since finances can be such an important part of so many social work positions, it’s possible to work your expertise into many different types of placements.

Financial social work education also wades into the ethical depths of finance. Finance is a central but touchy aspect of client’s lives. Without training in ways to approach the subject, many social workers steer away from those discussions. So ethics coursework that incorporates financial matters is desirable.

Certifications Aimed at Other Professions May Still Be Useful for Financial Social Workers

Before the CFSW credential came on the scene, social workers looking for more formal certification had a range of other options to choose from. Many of those are still on the menu today and offer an alternative path to developing your expertise in financial social work.

These are too numerous to list with all their respective requirements and benefits. But you may find that one or more of them makes sense to build your skillset in your chosen social work practice area.

  • Certified Financial Therapist
  • Accredited Financial Counselor
  • Certified Financial Counselor
  • Certified Financial Behavior Specialist
  • Certified Personal Financial Wellness Consultant
  • Certified Credit Counselor
  • Certified Consumer Debt Specialist
  • Certified Personal Financial Counselor

It’s the Right Time to Get Started in Financial Social Work

Although the thinking around dealing with finances in conventional social work practice has become more sophisticated, new challenges continue to emerge in the economic system for social workers to tackle:

  • How individuals without access to digital tools or bank accounts are marginalized in a society that is slowly phasing out the use of cash
  • Ways that domestic violence perpetrators use control over household finances to trap their victims
  • New understandings of psychological and behavioral motivations behind financial performance
  • Gender effects in everything from pay disparity to healthcare costs
  • Ways that new systems of benefits, like universal basic incomes, may be used to find a third way between welfare policy reform and complete economic self-sufficiency
  • Inequities in the justice system revolving around the use and abuse of cash bail

Like many elements of social work, financial behavior is influenced by life circumstances, while also having the potential to influence those circumstances. Social workers are ideally positioned, through their training and experience, to connect those dots. With the financial training that is becoming available in the field now, it’s an exciting time to get started… there’s a lot of good to be done.

Social workers may not ever develop the expertise of full-on financial planners, but they bring something new and important to the table: the empathy and psychological understanding to help clients work through financial stressors in a way that no credit counselor or financial planner could manage.