[caption id="attachment_43809" align="alignright" width="280" caption="Five teams competed in Redwood Credit Union's first-ever 'Amazing Savers' contest: (front row, left to right) Team Jennifer Lynch, Team Flores and Team Van Patten; (back row, left to right) Team Jaworski and Team Campbell."][/caption]

NORTH BAY -- Redwood Credit Union’s spin on reality television will reach its finale on Thursday as the winner of the first-ever “Amazing Savers” contest is announced.

Five teams have spent the last seven months closely documenting their efforts to improve their finances, and one will walk away from Thursday’s gala with a $10,000 grand prize.

But for the four runners up -- and the many who have followed the contest -- Redwood Credit Union Senior Vice President Robin McKenzie said that there’s a more profound benefit to be had in learning the ins and outs of personal finance.

“It’s all about financial wellness,” said Ms. McKenzie, one of the original planners of the event. “We hope that this contest inspires people to take action.”

Planning for Amazing Savers first started late last year when the credit union’s President and CEO Brett Martinez, approached Ms. McKenzie and Chief Operating Officer Anne Benjamin with the idea.

With the popularity of reality entertainment, Mr. Martinez and others felt the format could create strong public interest on the topic of financial literacy. A similar, statewide contest in New Mexico, “Savings Challenge,” also helped inspire the event.

The concept fit well with other efforts from the 200,000-member credit union to combat what they saw as a lack of financial literacy in the public, including their Teen Financial Literacy Academy. That program has so far graduated 170 high school juniors and seniors, though the credit union would like to see money management be an official part of the high school curriculum.

By publicizing the efforts of a diverse group of contestants, organizers said they hoped to inspire others to follow their lead.

“Think about it -- when you’re watching reality shows like Survivor, you usually connect with somebody,” Ms. McKenzie said.

After several newly formed committees laid the groundwork for the first-ever contest, Redwood Credit Union began accepting applications in January, open to both members and non members. More than 100 teams applied before the February deadline, representing a broad range of financial situations.

“The steering committee sat down and looked at every single application,” said Ms. McKenzie, narrowing down finalists based on clear financial goals and “passion for the process.”

The five teams selected represented some of the different geographies that the credit union serves. Those who weren’t selected were still offered a financial coach, a service available for free to all members. Many accepted.

Starting in April, participants met regularly with the branch manager that became their coach, documenting their experience in blog posts and on Facebook. Redwood Credit Union featured the contestants in a number of ads and events throughout the contest.

The teams included the three-member Jaworski family, who moved to Santa Rosa from Los Angeles so that their infant son, Miko, could grow up in Sonoma County; The Campbells, small business owners from Sebastopol, are looking to afford college and retirement for their family; The Van Pattens, from Ukiah, are paying down student loans while looking toward the future; The Flores family, with young son Sammy, lives in Santa Rosa and sought to create a “livable budget” and increase their savings; Jennifer Lynch, from Corte Madera, was laid off from a full-time teaching position before the contest and was working to regain her financial footing.

“The five contestants really represent our diverse community and geographic footprint,” said Mark Chapman, assistant vice president of marketing and communications at the credit union.

Each contestant improved their financial standing over the course of the contest. The Jaworski family bought a house in September, after counseling from their coach. Many have ended the contest with lower debt and higher credit scores--in one case, 75 points higher. Ms. Lynch, who was hired full-time teaching fifth grade during the contest, brought her class to the credit union’s Novato branch in October for a lesson in money management.

While each contestant joined with a different financial situation, Ms. McKenzie said that it was common financial tools -- like creating a budget and clear financial goals--that helped many of them get on the right track.  

“These steps may seem simple enough, but it took getting real about my finances before I could really make a difference in my financial picture. I now plan to stick with my new budget, continue to set savings goals, and carry on with sharing this information with my daughters,” wrote Sharon Van Patten on her team blog.Team Jaworski wins RCU’s ‘Amazing Savers’

Nov. 17, 2011

SANTA ROSA -- When Redwood Credit Union President and CEO Brett Martinez took to the podium tonight to present the $10,000 grand prize for the institution’s first “Amazing Savers” contest, he had an unexpected surprise for the runners up. [read more]

Public voting on the contest website began on Oct. 31 and ended Nov. 11.  In addition to those votes, committee members and coaches will evaluate the participants based on movement towards their stated financial goals, improvement to their credit score, level of saving and engagement in the contest process.

The participants will learn who among them won the contest during Thursday’s gala. Before then, discussion have already begun at the credit union about a “season two,” Ms. McKenzie said.

“This is truly reality -- and we're thrilled this contest helped our contestants, and hopefully many others, improve their financial situation,” she said.

Thursday’s gala starts at 6 p.m. in RCU's Sonoma Community Room on Cleveland Avenue. To RSVP, call 1-800-479-7928, or RSVP online.