Where can seniors educate themselves on financial literacy?

Those with decent financial assets can take classes at local colleges, join investor clubs, or seek out teachers. For underserved communities, however, Wharton School of Business professor Keith Weigelt is taking classes to senior centers around Philadelphia.

"The wealth gap is also turning into a health gap," Weigelt explained last week to a group of about 20 women at the St. Charles Senior Center at 19th and Christian Streets, where he and Dr. Jill Bazelon were teaching the first class in a three-week seminar on financial literacy, a five-year-old program called "Building Bridges to Wealth."

Closing that wealth gap can lead to all kinds of benefits — including living longer and with less stress resulting from money worries.

The seminar is tailored to financial concerns regarding how to invest in the stock and bond markets, avoiding frauds, and questions about retirement planning.

Weigelt also is teaching a financial-literacy program for adults, including a Saturday class on the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton campus at 12:45 p.m. May 6. Two independent finance groups have started as a result of his series — an investing group and a savings club, both of which meet on campus regularly. They're open to the public and free to join.

The wealth gap between white and minority households is widening, Weigelt told his audience at St. Charles, because white households "are so much more invested in the stock markets than minority households. And because wealth grows from long-term compounding, if the composition of investors does not change, then the wealth gap will keep growing."

For the last five years, his Building Bridges to Wealth program has combined classroom training with "communities of wealth" support groups, to teach all age levels within undeserved communities — middle-school students, their adult parents, and the elderly — about saving and investing, with an opportunity at each meeting to invest small sums of money, starting with as little as $1.

Last year, the average return of his seminar participants was over 15 percent — and 91 percent of surveyed participants reported a better understanding of the stock market.

That said, anyone of any income level may attend Building Bridges to Wealth seminars.

"I'm not selling you any product or anything," Weigelt told his audience at St. Charles Senior Center.

What he is trying to sell is a message: That wealth-building requires educating oneself.

"The median white household has wealth – meaning assets minus debts – of $141,000, while the median for black households is $11,000. We want to reduce that, close that wealth gap."

The biggest mistake minorities make is putting their money in banks – which earn less than 1 percent annually in interest – instead of in the stock market, which returns about 7 to 8 percent annually over the very long term.

"You can't generate wealth putting money in bank accounts, and that is why the wealth gap persists," he said.

Some of the Wharton seminars are sponsored by FS Investments, a local investment firm, but no financial products are offered.

Weigelt recently presented the program to a U.S. Treasury roundtable about financial security, and plans are underway for three new Philadelphia high schools to team up with Bridges to Wealth this spring.

The Consulate of Mexico in Philadelphia also is collaborating on a Spanish-speaking program, according to a Wharton representative.

To sign up or for more information, call 215-898-6369 or visit buildingbridgestowealth.org.

Other resources. Philadelphia Federal Credit Union offers free seminars on how to check your credit score and get copies of your credit report. The next one takes place Tuesday at the Parkway Central Library from 6 to 7:30 p.m. and is hosted by Erin Ellis, a financial educator from PFCU.

The credit union can help you learn how credit works and how to manage your credit; how to obtain and analyze a credit report; how to find out about the effects of bankruptcy and what really affects your credit; and how to reorganize to reduce your bills and credit payments. For more information and a calendar of credit events, visit their website (www.pfcu.com) and click on "Financial Education."

Clarifi, a nonprofit that provides financial-literacy resources and counseling, offers a "Financial Smarts Workshop for Seniors" that addresses money management, avoiding identity theft and scams such as predatory lending, and insurance and reverse mortgages.

It also offers classes on Social Security, including estimating amounts, when to collect, working while collecting, tax impacts, maximization strategies, and more.

For information on Clarifi's seniors programs or to schedule a counseling session, call  1-800-989-2227 or visit the website (www.clarifi­.org).