My Career Path: Featuring Mac Gardner

Next Generation Planner: May 2021


Mac Gardner, CFP®
Founder and Chief Education Officer, FinLit Tech

Board Member, FPA of Tampa

Mac Gardner, CFP®, majored in government and politics at the University of Maryland and was on the path to working for a federal agency when he changed course.

“My dad got his MBA from NYU. Growing up in New York, I’d see him every day with that suit and tie—a bank executive going to work. I never thought that would be me. I had visions of going to law school and being an attorney. As a student at University of Maryland, I was on the path to becoming a DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] agent, but I was also working at a bank, so I technically started off my financial services career in banking.”

But upon his graduation, he joined the trust department at his bank and was intrigued by a management training program.

“I said to myself, ‘Let me throw my hat in the ring.’ I was literally applying for the DEA and applying for this management training program in commercial lending at the same time, and I got the opportunity to move from Maryland to South Florida to enter SunTrust Bank’s Financial Services Management Training Program.”

He stayed in commercial lending for a number of years but missed the investment side. When the opportunity arose to get additional licenses—like his Series 7 and Series 66, in addition to others for life insurance and variable annuities—he took it.

As such, he was prepared when the chance to step into a retirement plan adviser role arose. He was responsible for growing the 401(k) business in the South Florida market during his late 20s and early 30s.

In the midst of all of that, Mac became passionate about financial literacy. He presented more than 4,000 financial plans to people and kept coming across a common theme: no matter how much money his clients had, they didn’t have a basic understanding about their finances—things like the difference between term and whole life insurance, or how IRAs are different from 401(k)s or even the difference between stocks and bonds.

“I thought, ‘What can I do to help people?’ So when I started my own practice, I took all these experiences in banking and wealth management for the past 20 years and I wrote a book called Motivate Your Money!

I found that there’s a financial aspect of people’s lives, but there is also an emotional aspect to people’s lives, and they intertwine and it’s not necessarily the best thing. If you look at the copy of my first book, it says on the cover, ‘Your emotions should be colorful, but your finances should be black and white.’

The idea was to provide something to folks to help them get a better understanding of their finances and why financial planning is so important.”

In Motivate Your Money! he shares wisdom he calls “Mac Nuggets,” and explores the five steps to financial success: plan accordingly, spend cautiously, save diligently, invest wisely and give generously. The book was the first step in his quest to educate people on how to make better decisions with their money. But the journey continued with the children’s book The Four Money Bears.

The Four Money Bears represent the four things you can do with money: spend it, save it, invest it or give it away.

I started doing more research and realized that a child’s connection with money starts at age 7, so this information can actually be taught to children at a very young age. We can start sharing these concepts early.

The Four Money Bears is really a tool to start the conversation about money. It’s the story of me and my family going to the store. We’re all bears—Papa Bear, Mama Bear and the baby bears.

It’s a story that a lot of parents are familiar with—you go to Target and the first place that kids want to go is the toy section. It’s the story of me asking my kids, ‘Do you understand what your money can do for you?’”

The story dives into each of the four options—spending, saving, investing or gifting—and shows the pros and cons of each. Coupled with the precious story and the worksheets, young readers understand the concepts.

Another of Mac’s passion projects is exploring the intersection between financial literacy and technology.

“Technology is changing everything. There’s an app out there for everything—a banking app, an app for investing, an app for lending—literally tons of apps and tools to help you do stuff with your money, but there’s very little out there that actually teaches you what to do with your money.

My vision started a few years ago when I published The Four Money Bears. Everyone loved the book—especially if they were parents of young children and they never got any financial guidance. But the first question that came out of everyone’s mouth was, ‘Is there an app?’

That’s how my connection with eMoney started. They were working on some gamification tools to start the financial literacy process early and I had written the book. Their leadership team got hold of the book and asked me if I could attend their eMoney Summit in 2018 to share ideas about different ways to gamify the financial education process and utilize technology to get young people more involved in financial literacy and financial education.”

That eventually led to the Fintech Bullpen Challenge, which was designed to bring financial planning students and computer programing students together to design a kid’s financial education app based on The Four Money Bears.

“Technology is something that’s scalable, and the reason why we wanted to do that contest was that we realized that a book is very hard to scale. An app, however, can be used in schools, at home or by institutions to spread the knowledge. That’s why I think technology is really going to be a game changer for financial literacy and financial education—because we can scale it and we can get it to as many markets as we can.”

The contest attracted more than 40 entries from different schools with financial planning programs.

“Many of these personal financial planning programs are also aware that technology is something that’s growing and is going to be a part of our industry. We’re still working with the winner and the different developers on the direction that we want to go.

I think bigger than the app, what came out of that contest is this awareness from universities that have personal financial planning programs. These programs are either offering a fintech course or looking to introduce a fintech course to their students. I’m actually in the process of working with eMoney to help design and develop one of those as well.

It was interesting to see that we can have the minds of personal financial planning students—those potential financial adviser minds—partnering up with these young technology minds to bring all these creative ideas to the fore when it comes to financial literacy and wealth tech.”

In addition to the Fintech Bullpen Challenge, he has some things going on with eMoney through FinLit Tech’s partnership with the organization. He’s working on Incentive, a financial wellness app that can help retirement plan participants throughout their financial life journey.

“Financial education and financial wellness are two areas that are hand in hand. I presented to the team and said, ‘This is what I think FinLit Tech can do. Our mission is to build a bridge between financial literacy and financial technology.’

I’ve got a lot of experience on the 401(k) side, on the management side, on the financial planning side, and know that my perspective—not just professionally but as a Black male in this business for 20 something years—is valuable to the market that eMoney wants to address. The market that they want to address is more diverse than it has been in the past. Remember, eMoney has been serving the one percent for years. Wealth advisers and financial planners have been using their financial planning platform for folks that have significant financial assets. But I think eMoney also realized that if they want to live to their mantra of ‘helping people talk about money,’ they’ve got to address the 99 percent of people who aren’t millionaires and need sound financial guidance and advice.”

Through this partnership, he’s working on the app through the development side while also writing blog posts and hosting a webinar series that will come out this summer. He notes that he’ll have prominent guests like Marguerita Cheng, CFP®, Preston Cherry, Ph.D., CFP®, and Keith Beverly, CFP®, CFA, among others.

Like most people in this profession, he loves his work.

“I can’t help everybody, but I can help anybody. This is a mantra that I try to live by. Because there is this huge vacuum when it comes to financial literacy and financial education, and because it’s such an important aspect of our lives, I think what we do as advisers is really important to people. The guidance and education that we give can either be extremely beneficial or extremely detrimental, depending on how we use the force, to be silly about it. You can provide someone with advice and guidance that can be very helpful to them and their family, or you could sell someone something that could be very helpful to you as a salesperson initially, but not necessarily in the best interest of that person that you’re selling a product to.

Advisers need to sit down and really understand their client—understand their needs, their wants and wishes, their goals, and understand their family.

I call these the three Fs—when doing the initial discovery meeting, always talk about family first, then talk about finances, then you talk about their future. To be able to help shape people’s financial lives and to serve as a guide along their financial life journey is pretty powerful.”

But he says the most exciting things in the profession in terms of financial education, financial literacy and wellness are yet to come, primarily because of readers like you.

“I would want for the advisory force who’s going to be the primary reader of this to realize that they have an amazing opportunity to impact a lot of people—not just the client who is in front of them. They have an opportunity to impact the communities they live in and the communities their clients live in by utilizing these resources that are available for financial literacy, financial education and financial wellness.

It used to be viewed as sort of, ‘I do [financial literacy] on the side. It’s not good to help grow my business,’ but statistics have shown that financial literacy can actually help you grow your business significantly.

A quick story: when eMoney asked me to create a CFP® CE seminar based on The Four Money Bears, I was more than happy to do it as an opportunity to share my thoughts—my Mac Nuggets—with advisers across the world. When we asked how many folks utilize financial literacy courses or guidance as part of their practice, only a few hands went up.

But then I spoke with one person who’s had it as part of their practice for years and, in fact, the reason they believe The Four Money Bears could be so helpful for them is because when we take care of a client, they’re thankful; but when you can take care of their children, they’re forever grateful. Imagine the type of connection you can make with a client when you’re saying, ‘I’m not just going to help you manage your wealth, but I want to educate you and the next generation [on] how to use money properly.’ When that money eventually does transition to that next generation, they’re prepared and have the proper tools necessary.

If more advisers can start looking at their practices that way and view financial literacy and financial education not just as a side thing to do, but as something to really differentiate your practice, grow your practice and take care of future generations, I think that would be awesome for our industry.”

General Financial Planning Principles