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• Dec 14, 2020

Chris Halabecki knows that being a post-secondary student on a budget isn't always easy.

As the Leader of TD Lab – a TD innovation team working out of the Communitech Hub in Kitchener-Waterloo – Halabecki spends a lot of his time working alongside post-secondary students. And he believes no one knows what students are going through when it comes to finances quite like the students themselves.

So, when his team was challenged by the TD Customer Strategy team in the summer of 2019 to develop a new digital solution to help post-secondary students effectively save, budget and prepare for their education, he felt strongly that anything the team created for students would need to be developed by students.

Soon, that summer's co-op students at TD Lab were paired off and challenged to create a digital solution to help demystify a complex financial issue – budgeting – for students.

"We knew that our solution needed to be appealing to use by being simple, fast, lightweight, customizable and visual," said Halabecki.

"The goal was to create a versatile tool that worked for students regardless of their situation. This versatility turned out to be even more critical the following year during the pandemic."

The result is TD Lab's new Student Budget Calculator, which was launched on October 2, 2020 and is hosted on the TD Student Advice Hub website.

The innovative budgeting tool walks students through five easy steps to help them understand the complete cost of their post-secondary education including living expenses. The tool helps break down estimated costs and contributions (such as scholarships, bursaries or loans), and provides averages as a guide for students who may be new to some expenses, including housing, entertainment and groceries.

Students can also enter custom items and amounts specific to their own needs in order to get a more accurate picture of their financial situation.

The results are shared visually, with two side-by-side meters that update in real-time to help students see how costs compare to their savings or income. This information can help students understand how much their total school costs may be, and how to effectively save, budget and prepare for it.

For students, by students

Established in 2014 and located in Kitchener-Waterloo's Communitech Hub – an accelerator centre for startups, scaleups and corporate innovators – TD Lab is an innovation team comprised of developers, designers, business analysts and co-op students, all working together to develop and deliver next generation digital solutions for customers.

The importance of TD Lab's 'for students, by students' approach extends far beyond the Lab walls, Halabecki said.

"As they start to embark on their careers, they need digital tools to help them understand their finances."

From ideation to prototyping to development, students attending local universities are fully integrated into the creation process at TD Lab.

"Our goal is to help provide solutions to any gaps that students may have with their banking experience and financial literacy, using data-driven research, technology and user experiences," said Halabecki.

"And we think that one of the best ways to do that is to get the end-user, that is, the students, involved with helping to create and develop the solution."

Charly Bax, a Commerce and International Business student at Carleton University who helped develop the Student Budget Calculator, said that the financial challenges that come with post-secondary education can be daunting for many students, and that she was hopeful the new tool would be able to help students develop better financial literacy skills.

"It was so cool to get project management experience by working on a product that actually matters to me, my peers and my friends," she said.

"I feel lucky to have had a hand in building something that can really benefit students and make it less overwhelming and less intimidating so they can understand how to prepare financially for their studies."

Real feedback key to refinement

"The pair of co-op students who first formulated the idea for the Student Budget Calculator researched and discovered that many banks already had some form of budgeting tool for students on their website, but that they were all variations of the classic budget spreadsheet, which really wasn't appealing from a user perspective," Halabecki said.

The solution to this concern was to make the tool more visual and user-friendly with a crisp, uncluttered data presentation that is informative and interactive without being visually overwhelming. The tool also focuses on financial literacy rather than product selling. It helps students understand how their choices will impact how much they require in savings, and surfaces costs they may not have considered. Different living situations and spending decisions will impact their budget differently.

The next phase of the project began in late 2019 and early 2020, when the team engaged with hundreds of students on local campuses and online via tdlab.io, a new interactive website developed by TD Lab to bring their 'for students, by students' focus to life. The new site allows TD Lab to share early-stage concepts with university students, who can then provide feedback on ideas and prototypes.

During the prototyping phase of the project, TD Lab engaged a targeted group of 50 university students for focus groups and testing sessions. Once a prototype was ready, the tool was tested with more than 300 students at Wilfrid Laurier University, and their feedback helped refine the mobile-friendly Student Budget Calculator that's available today.

"Having students involved in the project and advocating for their unique, diverse experiences to be reflected in it – like making sure it works for students who are paying entirely for school on their own or for someone who is still living at home – is what made for a better solution that has gained student interest," Halabecki said.

TD Lab plans to continue working with students to help identify and create experiences they want that make banking easier, more intuitive and more applicable to their daily lives.

Visit tdlab.io for a portfolio of other prototypes, proof of concepts and pilots created by the TD Lab to solve for key challenges in student budgeting, money management and investing.

Read more: Canadian college and university students face new financial realities as they return to class