From the October 2017 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

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How an idea, a teacher and a public school leader are inspiring advisors to create a legacy

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Erika Fix did not aspire to be a teacher. In fact, she could not envision a career speaking in front of others. Then one day she ran into a former high school friend who shared his horrible experience as a student. Erika also recalled the hostile learning environment for both staff and students at their school. That chance conversation with an old friend crystallized into a mission for Erika, a mission founded on the importance of giving kids a safe place to learn. Teaching became her life's work.

Erika focused on social studies, history and political science at first, but her teaching career took a turn when she was hired by my alma mater, Gladstone High School in Michigan's Upper Peninsula (U.P.). She would replace the retiring Sue Beranek, who two years prior had started Gladstone's personal economics course with my financial support and with the executive support of Superintendent Jay Kulbertis. Erika had never heard of such a course. Michigan, like the majority of states, does not mandate financial literacy training, so most teachers (and students) are never exposed to the subject.

(Related: Money Trumps Love as Millennials’ Biggest Worry: BMO Survey)

Building on the foundation that Jay and Sue implemented in this community of 5,000 people, Erika now conducts two separate personal economics classes spread over four semesters. The course is an elective, making it even more impressive that over 50% of the senior class enrolls in the program each year. The students learn about economic choices, banking and savings, investing, budgeting, taxes and insurance.

The students also learn about funding their college education. As Erika stated recently to an audience of local financial professionals, “I hope now kids realize their career choice might also dictate their college choice. If they want to go into social work, for example, it isn't economically prudent to go to the most expensive university with any hope of paying off their loans.”

I cannot imagine how daunting it must have been to deliver this difficult content to a group of teenagers. Sue tutored Erika during the transition, and Erika's love for learning helped.

Knowing the course material is different from truly understanding the content, however. As a true professional committed to her vocation, Erika submitted a grant application to Take Charge Today, run by the University of Arizona, through which she attended a summer training session. “Their curriculum is amazing,” Erika said. “I still use much of it today. It's very detailed but still fun for the kids.”

In a community that suffers from generational poverty and limited economic opportunity, knowing how to make the right financial choices is an important piece in becoming responsible, confident adults who are less vulnerable to abuse and control.

Learning From Experience

Concurrent with her newly discovered specialty as a personal finance instructor, Erika and her husband were recovering from their experience operating a construction business during the Great Recession. As with many small-business owners at that time, they suffered considerable financial stress keeping up with credit card debt to support their household and business. This made the course less abstract for Erika. “It was really sinking in that kids who had this class might not make the same mistakes, or at least they would make decisions with their eyes wide open.”

Erika became a passionate advocate for financial education as part of the core curriculum for elementary and high school students. Her mission and purpose continue to expand.

Two years ago, Erika introduced a Financial Literacy Summer Camp for elementary school students. She also drafted three other instructors and a number of community volunteers to teach a group of fourth- and fifth-graders the power of prudent financial choices. Last year, Erika helped a teacher in a neighboring school district roll out a similar program at their high school using the same teaching methods and curriculum. In addition to these and other extracurricular activities around personal finance, Erika coached the top Upper Peninsula teams competing in the National Personal Financial Challenge, in which they finished fourth at the state level against 187 teams.

Because of Erika's efforts to help children become financially independent adults, Northern Michigan University's Center for Economic Education and Entrepreneurship presented its inaugural U.P. Economic Education Teacher of the Year Award to Erika last year.

Why is this story relevant to the financial profession? In this business, we have five core constituents: our clients, our employees, our partners, our industry and our community. Each constituent presents a special challenge, but our communities hold the greatest opportunity for fulfillment. Consider these statistics from MonsterTrak and the National Foundation for Credit Counseling:

  • 57% of college students plan to move back in with their parents upon graduation.

  • 62% of college graduates expect to have $27,000 of student debt.

  • 61% of American seniors rely on Social Security for at least half their income.

  • 44% of teens say that stress about money at home affects their school performance.

  • 18% of Americans spend more than they make.

This summer, I returned to the U.P. to join Erika and Jay in asking the local financial community to become more involved in financial literacy initiatives. A 2017 Gladstone High School graduate, Caitlyn Gimler, also spoke at this event. She brought a special perspective, sharing how Erika's class changed her career choice from science to finance, and how it prepared her for the next phase of her life. Now Caitlyn is an undergraduate at Grand Valley State University, where she majors in finance and ultimately hopes to pursue her CFP certification.

The success I witnessed with this initiative encouraged me to share the idea with others in financial services. To date, more than 100 financial advisors have approached schools in their communities to deliver similar programs. It is heartening to learn that variations of this class are being offered throughout the country. In fact, Pershing has partnered with a firm called Everfi to deliver an online course to high school students. We are testing the program in 10 schools and intend to roll it out more broadly to financial advisors on our platform in 2018.

It is my hope to extend the same learning opportunities to all students in Michigan, and eventually in other states where personal economics coursework is not required. Young men and women entering their adult lives must make choices about using credit, planning for their education, buying a car, renting an apartment, raising a family, participating in their company's retirement plan — the list goes on. What may seem intuitive for those of us in this business can be life-changing for people who have never been empowered with such choices.

As a country we need to do more to break the cycle of generational poverty, to reduce dependency on government and community agencies, and to rebuild a strong middle class. Financial independence stems from behavior as much as income. Gaining control of one's financial life fosters the confidence to pursue new opportunities, the tools to shape a successful future and the freedom to build strong relationships with loved ones.

We have an opportunity to shape young people's thinking about money, and to show those without wealth how they can breathe the same air as those who enjoy financial independence. We also have an opportunity to demonstrate how the business of financial advice is a noble profession, a job where one can be intellectually stimulated and financially rewarded while profoundly impacting the lives of others.

Are you inspired? Will you join this effort? Please consider volunteering, donating and promoting the concept of personal economics in your own community.

--- Read Great Expectations Can't Be Met Without Leadership on ThinkAdvisor.

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