Mark Tibergien is the retired CEO of Pershing Advisor Solutions, a BNY Mellon Company. He currently serves as an independent director of Pathstone, a multi-family office business with locations throughout the U.S. Previously, he served as partner-in-charge of the business consulting group at Moss Adams LLP, and as president of Management Advisory Services. He has been sponsoring his high school’s personal economics program since 2007.
The year 2020 revealed that America is a country in crisis—not just because of COVID-19 and the thousands of deaths it caused, or the state of our healthcare system, or because we are experiencing rampant unemployment and small business closings—but because parents and their children are lacking in a basic understanding of personal economics, which is negatively impacting the choices they make.
“Our nation is rapidly sinking into a sea of debt and financial dependency,” according to David Pickler, J.D., CFP®, ChFC®, CDFA®, who serves as executive director of the American Public Education Foundation (APEF). “America is facing a growing epidemic. We have created a collective culture where it is acceptable to pursue bankruptcy as a solution to irresponsible financial behavior and decision making.”
In 2019, the APEF found that 34 states earned grades of “C” or less for financial literacy instruction in their schools, and just 16 states earned grades of “A” or “B.”1
Their study drew upon state legislation, graduation requirements, academic standards, and relevant curriculum. They only gave three states—Missouri, Utah, and Virginia—an “A” grade for mandating personal financial education across grades K-12 and requiring a stand-alone personal finance course for high school graduation. Four—Alaska; Washington, D.C.; Rhode Island; and South Dakota—received an “F” for failing to guarantee any financial literacy instruction in K-12 schools.
Clearly, America’s public schools are underfunded, and their teachers are underpaid. But as with anything important, community pride can drive fundamental change. One big challenge in this case is that children are behaving as their parents are teaching them. With so many adults not demonstrating responsible financial behavior, it is unlikely they will be the inspiration for personal financial literacy training in their schools.
The Role of Financial Planning in Financial Literacy
This is where financial advisers as a profession need to organize efforts nationally and locally to drive financial literacy education in every community.
There is clearly a gap. Several years ago, the financial services trade publication InvestmentNews did a survey of its readers comprised mostly of financial professionals to uncover attitudes about how early parents and educators should begin teaching personal economics. They reported that 78 percent of financial advisers strongly agree financial literacy is a concern in the United States, but less than half are doing anything to address it.
It should start very early in a child’s development. A handful of local firms scattered across the country are stepping up to do their part, but nothing that is gaining momentum in each state, let alone each community.
I have had the opportunity to personally experience the power of financial literacy training leveraging members of the financial services industry. In the early part of this century, I started to donate to my alma mater, Gladstone High School in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, with the goal of providing teaching materials and scholarships to encourage this type of education.
The course was created by high school teacher Susan Langer Beranek and then turned over to Erika Fix to refine and expand upon Susan’s retirement.2
One thing Erika did to further develop the program was reach out to the community to ask bankers and accountants and car dealers and grocery store managers to share their perspectives on the good and bad decisions people make. The field trips and visits to class were lessons in buying and saving, negotiation, and discipline. When businesspeople who sold stuff to their parents begin explaining the options and how to evaluate them, it becomes a very practical lesson for the kids. When the banker explains the mistakes others have made and the consequences of those decisions, the narrative becomes real and no longer abstract. When each volunteer celebrates a good decision by a child who went through the training, it becomes a source of positive reinforcement.
Today, Gladstone High School seniors are graduating with a better understanding that where they go to school and how much they spend should be better aligned with the career they aspire to. No sense borrowing $200,000 for a private education if the goal is to be a social worker. The financial return is not there to justify the big debt.
Others are seeking a career in personal finance; one they did not even consider when growing up since it was not a profession many were exposed to. One of my favorite examples is Caitlyn Gimler, who graduated from Grand Valley State University in 2020. As a junior, she took an internship with a wealth management firm in Ireland one summer, which further affirmed her interest in this business. Upon graduation, she accepted a position with Plante Moran Wealth Management in Grand Rapids, MI.
The point is that foundational training in personal finance not only prepares people to make better choices for them and their family but opens career choices in a profession that is intellectually stimulating, financially rewarding, and profoundly impacting the lives of others.
As an example, when I made a return visit to the little town in which I grew up, I offered to invest more in the program to promote financial literacy. Not knowing exactly how they would deploy the additional resources, Erika asked her students who were nine months into the personal economics class to form teams and make presentations to me, the school superintendent, and her as to what would make the greatest impact.
There were many ideas, but two that stood out helped the teacher and superintendent conceive of a clever program. The first recommendation by the kids was to develop a class for their parents. The second recommendation was to begin financial literacy education at a much earlier age. Thus was born a summer camp for elementary and middle school kids with one condition—their parents were expected to meet with one of the business leaders or financial professionals who volunteered to support the program in order to learn some of the concepts their children would bring home.
This Is Our Opportunity. This Is Your Challenge.
Our country should be looking to each of you who give advice, do financial planning, or support the profession to use our current crisis as an opportunity for educational transformation. There are several important steps each of you can take:
Step 1: Learn the content and purpose of effective personal economics programs and determine if you can get behind it. There are scores of for-profit and not-for-profit organizations that deliver financial literacy education in a variety of formats. I personally think that a foundational class that covers at least a year of education for a middle school or high school student is the best place to start. But my bias should not stop you from trying anything you can get behind personally.
Step 2: Begin with the basics. While many courses leap right into investing, you all know as financial planners this is like planning the wedding before you meet your fiancé. There is much to learn about how a paycheck is carved up, how taxes are calculated, how groceries are purchased, or how one gets to work or school. There are also foundational lessons in managing cash, saving for short- and long-term needs, and building a cushion. Ultimately, risk protection and investing become part of the equation. The reason to be conversant in the basics is to prepare you for the next step.
Step 3: Engage with the middle school and high school leaders either in your present community or in the town in which you were raised. Public schools in particular are under great strain to deliver core subjects within their budget limitations, but every school will have a teacher or principal or superintendent who views the fundamentals of personal finance to be required basic education for every kid who is preparing to go out in the real world. Understand why they might resist and plan for ways to overcome these objections. Typically, time, ability, cost, and coordination with other classes will rise to the top. Think how you (and perhaps your colleagues or friends) might address each of these to break down the barriers.
Step 4: Provide the funding and source volunteers to help with the class. Helping the school to identify the proper course work and appropriate resource materials will make implementation of this program happen more quickly and more effectively.
Step 5: If it is not possible to introduce an elective into the school’s curriculum, think about how you can start a personal economics summer camp that connects both the kids and the parents to the same issues. This is a great way for teachers seeking additional income and additional opportunity to impact the lives of young folks to play a role. You can involve other members of your community in the camp as volunteers while paying the teachers to deliver the content and work with the students. Imagine if you had a preliminary session with the parents to let them in on what you will be teaching their kids, and encourage them to call you if their child comes home with questions they are not prepared to answer. This is an opportunity for confidence building and helping mothers and fathers begin to understand their own financial choices better.
In an ideal world, one of your professional organizations would adopt financial literacy as part of its mission so that others like you would have a place to turn to drive change. We will likely need to demonstrate that the power of personal economics education helps the profession influence more lives for the better and positions young peoples for fulfilling, financially stable lives.
- See “Nation’s Report Card Reveals Striking Financial Literacy Gaps Across Satates,” at pfeef.org/2019/10/07/nations-report-card-reveals-striking-financial-literacy-gaps-across-states/.
- This video will provide insight into how both teachers approached the challenge: youtube.com/watch?v=c-rGMXOveBY.