Trade-offs. Opportunity costs. The consequences of different decisions and actions.
It’s how Katie Sauer has always viewed the world and the reason she believes she was born to be an economist.
“When I was a young child, maybe 5 or 6, I was very strong willed and my parents would give me an extra household chore as a consequence for not listening. I very clearly remember weighing the punishment of having to unload the dishwasher or fold a basket of laundry against the satisfaction I got from talking back to my parents or not sharing a toy with my sister. And I’d often choose to continue my behavior because it was worth the cost.” She adds that her parents caught on quite quickly and changed tactics.
Today, she is director of Financial Wellness, Education and Research in Employee Services for the CU system.
She took her first formal economics class in high school (Bismarck, North Dakota) – it was a requirement for graduation – and did well. When she went to college (St. Cloud State University), her heart was set on majoring in dance. It had been her hobby growing up, and she excelled in it. But her parents steered her away from that idea.
“They said, ‘No, you can’t do that. You can keep dancing as a hobby, but you need to choose something else that has a higher probability of supporting you financially.’ I ended up choosing economics. It was fantastic! I loved it! And it made a lot of sense.”
When she graduated, she went to work for a mortgage company. That lasted eight days. She quit when she realized the job wasn’t a good fit for her. Instead, she decided to become a high school economics teacher. She enrolled in a secondary education licensure program and a master’s program in economics. During the first fall semester of coursework, she realized she wanted more. Her department chair steered her toward an economics doctoral program, and that brought her to the University of Colorado Boulder the next fall. (As she prepared to move to Colorado, she was offered a position in a Russian character ballet company in Minneapolis. She had kept dancing all through college as a hobby.)
After graduating, she went to the University of Southern Indiana where she worked with first-generation students as a faculty member teaching undergraduate economics. She also did work for the university’s Center for Economic Education, which provided economics and personal financial literacy professional development and training for K-12 teachers.
“Of all the places I lived in my life – North Dakota; Minnesota; Washington, D.C.; Colorado; Indiana – I realized that I really wanted to get back to Colorado. I was able to secure a faculty position at Metropolitan State University of Denver in 2009 and I was also co-director of their Center for Economic Education. Then a year ago, I made the transition to the University of Colorado administration in Employee Services as director of Financial Wellness, Education, and Research, tying in my background as an economist and faculty member and all the work I had done with K-12 teachers and economic and personal financial literacy education.”
1. As director of Financial Wellness, Education, and Research, you support employee financial wellness programs for all campuses and system administration. Are there other programs like this around the country? What are some of the current or future programs you are developing?
I wouldn’t say workplace financial wellness programming is a trend yet. But at many employers, there is movement around a more comprehensive definition of wellness, which includes financial aspects outside of a traditional understanding of employer-provided benefits. But Employee Services at CU is working to create this type of programming and is committed to demonstrating how much we care about our employees and their well-being. I’m very excited to be in on the ground floor. It’s challenging because there aren’t well-established models of employer-sponsored workplace financial programs. A lot of different things are being tried. At the national level, the Department of Labor, the Financial Literacy and Education Commission (22 Federal agencies), and the National Endowment for Financial Education are all taking an interest in workplace financial wellness.
This first year has been planning and getting the lay of the land. One of the first priorities is to get the word out that all of our employees are eligible to meet one-on-one with financial professionals through our investment sponsors. People often think these sessions are solely for retirement planning and investing advice, but they can meet with these individuals about everything from managing credit card debt to saving for kids’ college to everyday budgeting. These meetings are purely educational and shouldn’t be sales in any way. (To learn more about this service or provide feedback on a one-on-one meeting that you’ve previously had, visit http://www.cu.edu/employee-services/financial-consultations.)
A couple of months ago, my team rolled out a “financial seminar by request program” where any manager or supervisor of a division can request a financial speaker to talk about any topic the group would be interested in learning about. While understanding the university’s retirement benefits or PERA benefits are popular topics, we’ve also had requests for the very basics of investing, understanding credit scores, 529 plans, and year-end tax considerations – to name just a few. We work with our investment sponsors and credit union partners to utilize their network of professional financial educators. With the Boulder campus’s Faculty and Staff Assistance Program (FSAP), we’ve developed a unique home-grown workshop series called “Mind Your Money Behaviors.” It combines counselors from FSAP who share how to deal with the emotional side of finances, including healthy communication strategies for when you discuss finances in your household, with presenters from the Financial Wellness division and includes a panel of financial experts discussing “what it’s like to meet with a financial professional” – including common myths and how to prepare. We’ve also done some training for the state of Colorado’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) counselors to increase their awareness of financial wellness and will be working with them to bring a version of “Mind Your Money Behaviors” to the other CU campuses.
And we’re working on building our Web resources. The first iteration will be rolling out in phases over the next year.
2. Why is it important to provide financial education in the workplace?
Because humans are busy. We all have the best of intentions and then life gets in the way. I can say there are several things on my own financial to-do list that I’ve been putting off because of other more pressing demands in my life – schedule a coverage audit with my insurance agent, get my third free credit report for the year, discuss holiday spending plans with my husband. Even though I haven’t done these things yet, they are on my mind. When they are on my mind, my mind is not fully on my work – even though I love what I do.
Regardless of job title, educational level or affluence, basically everyone is concerned with three things financially: the sufficiency of their money, the sustainability of their financial resources, and whether they’re making the right financial decisions for themselves and loved ones. If CU can provide access to programming or resources while in the work environment, making a tiny bit easier to take finances off your mind, that’s just another way we can provide a benefit to our employees. We recognize that financial well-being is an important part of a person’s health well-being. There’s a lot of research that has started to tie them together so we are looking through the lens of holistically supporting our employees.
3. You’ve also done some work for the U.S. Department of Commerce, with the Colorado Council for Economic Education, and with faculty in China. What did the work entail?
Katie Sauer practicing yoga last year in a rice field in Bali. On the home page: detail of her painting “Tariff.”
When I was in grad school working on my dissertation, the Department of Commerce was charged with writing a report for Congress about the importation of pharmaceuticals from Canada. My graduate adviser, Keith Maskus, connected me with that project. I spent four months in Washington, D.C., helping analyze the potential pricing impacts and other consequences that might occur if the U.S. decided to allow the importation of pharmaceuticals from Canada.
The Colorado Council for Economic Education is an affiliate of the national Council for Economic Education. This organization trains K-12 teachers to teach economics and personal financial literacy. Only about half of the states have content standards for economics and financial education, and Colorado is only one of a handful of states that has mandatory testing of those subjects. Many K-12 teachers have never taken a personal finance course or economics course, yet now they are supposed to teach.
This organization offers graduate-credit-bearing courses taught by university faculty paired with mentor teachers who have taught the topic in specific K-12 grades, so teachers get a continuing education professional development credit and also get a lesson plan so they know how to teach the topic at a grade-appropriate level. Last summer I worked with the council to create an online course for an elementary teacher to learn to teach economics and personal financial literacy. It was a video-based course and we did a lot of filming and storytelling. It was one of my favorite projects I’ve done for them.
I should point out that several CU faculty members are involved with the Colorado Council and there is an active Center for Economic Education on the UCCS campus.
4. I understand that you’re also a yogini. When did you begin to practice and what style do you favor?
I grew up as a dancer and so yoga never held much appeal to me. When in Indiana, I suffered a knee injury and I turned to yoga to rehabilitate it. Before long, I was hooked, not necessarily for the physical benefits but more so for the mental ones and the stress reduction I felt. That was in 2009. I did my yoga teacher training in 2012 to deepen my practice. I am a registered yoga teacher at the 200-hour level.
I practice vinyasa or flow yoga. Each movement is linked to an inhale or an exhale. It is a great way to “get out of your head.” I know hot yoga is very popular but I don’t practice it because it makes me feel like I want to pass out and die. The other style I like is yin yoga. Basically all of the poses are done on the floor using props like blankets and soft bolsters and yoga blocks. It is very relaxing and very good for the fascia and connective tissue of the body. It is the No. 1 best release I’ve found for the tension that I carry in my upper back.
I teach classes for friends and family here and there and I also teach office yoga and meditation at the system administration office for the people in the building. It’s a come-as-you-are class. You don’t need to change clothes and you don’t get sweaty. Last summer, I also did a workshop for the Boulder campus through FSAP’s Work/Life programming series.
5. Your website mentions that you are a painter. What is your medium and do you have favorite subjects?
I work predominately with acrylic on canvas. Basically everything I paint is geometric in nature. I really like to paint economic theory graphs. I see so much beauty in the shapes and patterns. Right now the canvases are just hanging in a closet in my home but I hope to someday professionally digitize them and put them out there for economists who might like to have this kind of art on a coffee mug or hanging in their office.