WE ARE RINGING DOORBELLS AND OFFERING FREE ADVICE TO CELEBRATE OUR 25TH YEAR
By FRANK LALLI MANAGING EDITOR

(MONEY Magazine) – I guess we could have splurged on a lavish party for advertisers. That's what most successful publications do to mark significant anniversaries. Black tie, a ballroom and the right celebrity guests just about guarantee you a 15-second video clip on Entertainment Tonight.

But the more the editors and business-side leaders discussed how we should celebrate our 25th anniversary, the more we began searching for a way to thank you for your loyalty. MONEY is now the nation's largest financial publication, with an audience of 9.8 million, as well as America's leading financial adviser. In one discussion, someone--no one can remember precisely who--blurted out: "Let's adopt a town and raise the residents' financial IQ."

A daunting idea, surely unprecedented and maybe impossible. But that's precisely what we are going to attempt beginning in January and culminating in our October issue--our actual 25th-anniversary edition. With financial support from Fidelity Investments, MONEY, in all, will spend $2 million on this project, the most ambitious of its kind ever attempted by any magazine.

Our first challenge was finding a town so typical that it can be called an honest mirror of America. After checking our exclusive Best Places to Live data bank and doing a good deal of legwork, we settled on Elgin, Ill. It's an attractive, self-sufficient community of 85,000 located on 24 square miles of flat former farmland along the Fox River, just 45 minutes west of downtown Chicago.

Elgin is where America lives, or at least where the majority of families wish they live. Thanks to a thriving base of relatively small companies, the unemployment rate rests just under the national average at an enviable 4.9%, and you can still buy a solid three-bedroom house for $135,000 on average. Furthermore, the town's citizens and therefore its culture are diverse; 22% of the people are nonwhite, including growing contingents of Hispanics and Laotians. And to top it off, there's Elgin Community College, a strikingly modern two-year college currently educating more than 20,000 students at affordable rates of around $120 for credit courses.

How do you raise an entire town's financial IQ? By ringing people's doorbells and making the nation's best financial advice available to them free of charge. Beginning in January, MONEY editors and other experts will conduct monthly seminars on pertinent topics such as how to save painlessly, get started investing right and trim your taxes. The two-hour sessions, which will be free to Elgin residents, will be held in the community college's state-of-the-art auditorium. Also, working with the town's energetic community leaders, we will offer workshops to smaller groups, featuring, say, retirement planning advice for employees at their workplace as well as career and basic personal financial guidance to students in the Elgin schools. All the workshops, like the seminars, will be free of charge. And everyone in town can get a one-year subscription to MONEY at no charge; all current subscribers will receive an extra year's worth of magazines, also free.

In addition, we created an Elgin site on the World Wide Web (money.com/elgin), where Elgin residents can send us their individual financial questions.

That's not all. Each month, starting in our February issue, we will profile an Elgin household facing a typical financial dilemma--how to build up college savings in a hurry, for example--and then offer advice that will be instructive both to that family and to our readers at large. Our editors and reporters are canvassing for profile candidates now. If there was no other reason to attempt this project, those face-to-face interviews would make it more than worth our time. We will get fresh insights into exactly what people like you are eager to learn more about.

The central question remains, however: How will we be sure we raised Elgin's financial IQ? We will try to document it. We will poll a representative cross section of the community at the start and at the end, and we are confident that we will be able to show that we not only improved the residents' basic financial understanding but also improved their behavior by convincing them to save more and to invest more intelligently. And if the project proves successful, we at MONEY will be pleased to work with other organizations that may want to adapt what we learn to their own communities. We do not want our efforts to end in Elgin; we want to inspire a nationwide initiative that will directly benefit families all across the country.

So there you have it: Advising Elgin, The MONEY Project. It's just another way we are working to maintain our reputation as America's leading service magazine.