Michelle Obama & The Napkins That Spell Out College Finance

Tina Hay, CEO of Napkin Finance. Courtesy photo

Michelle Obama may have left the White House, but her legacy as a champion of higher education will outlast her time as First Lady.

Just over a year ago, Obama launched the Better Make Room campaign, providing a space for college hopefuls to find the tools and information they need to make college possible. A big part is figuring out how to pay tuition — and that’s where a Harvard MBA and her napkin business come in.

Napkin Finance is a multimedia company that explains complex financial topics in 30 seconds or less. The company, which has eight employees, covers all kinds of money issues, from student loans to marriage to mortgages to how to start a company. And they explain everything via videos, podcasts, and charts that break things down to the simplest terms — simple enough to, say, fit on the surface of a napkin.

In April, Better Make Room partnered with Napkin Finance to design a course in financial literacy for college students. They started with a napkin on FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and now have a whole course covering topics like saving for college, student loans, and budgeting.


The FAFSA napkin. Courtesy image

“I met the First Lady’s team at a White House event last year,” says Tina Hay, CEO of Napkin Finance, “and they were telling me that they were looking for ways to communicate more about FAFSA. It started the conversation, and it grew into an actual napkin, and then a whole course.”

Now, about six months after the napkin course was made available, FAFSA deadlines are approaching, and it’s time for many incoming and continuing college students to consider applying for aid.

The deadlines are variable depending on what state students apply from. Some states ask that students submit their applications as soon as possible, as awards are granted until the state runs out of money. Others have official deadlines, spanning from March to September.

Napkin Finance’s FAFSA napkin, titled “Take The Money and Run,” explains what FAFSA stands for and highlights a recent release date change. In previous years, the application was released on January 1, but for students attending college in the 2017-2018 school year, the application was released this past October. The napkin also details how financial need is calculated, and how much money the government has available to give to students.


The idea for Napkin Finance came from Hay’s own study habits. She graduated from Harvard Business School with an MBA in 2002, but when she first got there she felt like she was at a disadvantage. “I had never even taken a finance course,” Hay says. “But I realized that I’m more of a visual thinker — as are many people. So I started drawing and sketching for my own personal knowledge, and it grew from a passion into something more.”

Hay describes Napkin Finance as a personal finance site that makes complex topics simple, visual, and engaging. Typically, topics come from what readers say they’re interested in. Once a topic has been chosen, Napkin Finance’s designers identify the important elements of the topic, and then an illustrator constructs the napkin, a process that takes anywhere from one to two months. Each napkin also comes with additional charts and text in case readers want further clarification.

“A lot of what we cover has come from our community of readers,” Hay says. “People are trying to figure things out that are relevant to whatever life stage they’re currently in — and that can be hard to find on their own.”


The Paying for College napkin. Courtesy image

For college-age readers, Michelle Obama’s course is available on both Napkin Finance’s and Better Make Room’s websites. “FAFSA is one of the most important things for helping people pay for college,” Hay says. “There’s a tremendous amount of money that the government has and can provide to students.”

There are six napkins officially in the Michelle Obama course: Save Money For College, FAFSA, Savings, Paying for College, Student Loans, and Budgeting. But Napkin Finance has quite a few more napkins that Hay thinks college students might be interested in. She points to napkins on getting into college, getting your first job, debt, taxes, and credit cards. “If you are going to college, we have a whole section that can guide you through the important factors of that life stage,” she says.

Obama may no longer be First Lady, but Better Make Room and Napkin Finance will continue their partnership to make napkins for college-age people, Hay says, working in particular on topics related to student loans and student loan debt.


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