I am a huge fan of British novelist and poet C.S. Lewis, and have been since I was a child. I’ve probably read Prince Caspian about a hundred times, not only because of the wonderful depth of the story, but also due to the important lessons the book imparts. Of the many great quotes about teachers and teaching, Lewis’s might be my favorite: “The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.”
One of the things I love about the quote is that, although it was written in 1943, the words are possibly even more poignant and applicable today. The context of Lewis’s quote (from a series of lectures titled “The Abolition of Man”) is his belief that, contrary to the popular wisdom of the time that education should be designed to “fortify the minds of young people against emotion,” teachers must instead elicit hope, activate the imagination and inspire action from their charges. Lewis believed that the teacher’s greatest enemy is not “a weak excess of sensibility,” but a growing level of cynicism in the minds of students.
In looking at the state of financial education (or literacy, although I personally dislike the term, as it implies that the lack of such knowledge is illiteracy) today, I can’t help but agree. If you need a gauge of just how rampant investor distrust has become, in a 2017 survey from Jackson, of 2,662 non-retired investor respondents with at least $100,000 in investable assets, 63.3 percent answered “true” when given the following statement: “Overall, I have a negative perception of most companies in the financial services industry (i.e., insurance companies, asset/money managers, investment product providers, etc.), and these companies must work to earn my trust before I choose to partner with them in any capacity.”
And it’s no wonder: the very idea that we could put our hard-earned money into a bank or investment vehicle, then either earn very little in interest over time or even lose it, is terrifying. To counteract this fear, the financial industry uses overly-complicated language, jargon and condescension in an attempt to seem smart, which ultimately comes across as disingenuous and confusing. The media hasn’t helped, with its sensationalist warnings of “The Next Recession,” up-to-the-minute accounts of “everything you’re doing wrong with your portfolio,” and doomed-to-fail get-rich-quick schemes. With all of these mixed messages, is it really surprising that many U.S. investors do not understand basic finance and investing-related concepts, and that they do not trust the financial companies (and, in some case, professionals) who could actually help them build their knowledge?
Yet, while we face cynicism and reputational obstacles in closing the financial education gap, U.S. investors are far from apathetic; in fact, many are clamoring for knowledge. A 2016 RBC Wealth Management Survey found that 87 percent of Americans believe that financial literacy should be taught in schools, with 15 percent believing instruction should begin as early as elementary school. In a similar vein, a 2017 survey completed by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling found that eight in 10 adults agree—and over three in 10 strongly agree – that they could benefit from advice and answers to everyday financial questions from a professional.
Thus, while some of the statistics can paint a dire picture of the current level of investor education, they also highlight the incredible opportunity available if we choose to work together—investors, financial planners and industry professionals. Raising the overall level of financial education and confidence, both in quality and quantity is something that requires commitment from every stakeholder in the process, and engagement at every level. I believe that, to make healthy progress, we must all embrace the roles of both teacher and student, and the responsibility that comes with each.
To quote Lewis once again, “the right defense against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments,” and that’s a mission I think we can all get behind.
Taking on the Mantle of Teacher
The phrase “Keeping up with the Joneses,” originally coined in 1913, refers to our penchant to benchmark our accumulation of material goods and class situation against that of our neighbors, often resulting in a cycle of overspending and living beyond our means.
While still a literal phenomenon playing out across the suburban U.S., the bigger issue with “Keeping up with the Joneses” is just how much the underlying sense of brutal, winner-take-all competition has seeped into other areas of our daily lives. We compete with our peers in the business world, and even those within our own organizations, to climb the corporate ladder, whatever the cost. We push our children to be ultra-competitive in sports, academics and music before they even reach kindergarten age, as they have to be the smartest, strongest and most talented kid in the neighborhood. And many of us compete, consciously or subconsciously, on a financial level with nearly everyone we meet.
I’m all about a little healthy competition, but I think there are some areas in which we need to
commit to focusing not just on ourselves, but on doing our part to level the playing field. Financial education is one of these areas. After all, competitive spirit aside, we don’t want to see others struggle or even fail financially, especially if it’s a situation where we could have lent support in the form of education.
That said, as planners know well, many people don’t like to talk about their finances with others, as it is a deeply personal topic. For intimate relationships, such as family, significant others and close friends, our responsibility as teachers may necessitate moderating an awkward conversation, intervening when we see a looming financial issue or, in some cases, finding clever and fun ways to generate interest in a topic often considered dry and boring.
For those with whom we are less familiar, an aggressive approach to financial education is generally not the most prudent way forward, especially for planners, as there’s a chance a well-meaning tip comes off as a pitch for new clients. Instead, friends-of-friends, casual acquaintances, colleagues and whoever may fall into the “less intimate” category in our lives might be better served by learning through sharing.
We already share everything else (I know what 80 percent of my friends had for dinner last night via Instagram), so why not extend that to financial and investing tidbits, or the articles we find of interest? For financial planners, I believe this to be one of the most effective forms of marketing—sharing your knowledge for free, with the knowledge that when people who enjoy your content and find it valuable need financial support on a deeper level, they are more likely to come to you.
Don’t be afraid to send these types of things out to your social networks (obviously within compliance boundaries), or to alert people via email when you see (or write) an article you think they might want or need to read. If they’re not interested, they can always delete or scroll past your share, and you will have at least done your part. Sharing interesting financial content is a simple way to help others become more informed, and can also help you build your personal brand within your network and community as someone committed to helping others, regardless of whether those you are supporting are current clients.
Perhaps the most important thing we need to remember as teachers is that the financial lingo and terminology that may be second nature to us can easily come across as gibberish to those we are trying to educate. It’s our job to take the information we want to share and translate it into something consumable and interesting for someone outside the industry’s walls.
Sure, there is a perception for some that our industry and profession are boring, but we know better. If we can show our passion for each financial topic and craft our message in a way that gets people excited to learn, we will have taken a gigantic step forward. I think William Arthur Ward said it best in that the mediocre teacher tells, the good teacher explains, a superior teacher demonstrates, but a great teacher inspires.
The Value of Becoming a Student
As with most learning situations, in finance, the teacher-student relationship is not limited to one-way communication from expert to novice. In other words, we can all also be students when it comes to financial education.
For example, one of the best ways to un-jargonize the language we use is to spend time talking about finances with those who are less familiar with the investing world. In addition, making a conscious effort to step outside of what we “know” and spend time re-learning or taking a different look at even the most common financial concepts can often provide a powerful dose of perspective. That new perspective or new lens can help us be more effective in communicating with those we’re trying to teach.
You can also encourage your clients who are taking their first steps into saving and investing to provide you, and the financial services providers with whom you work, with feedback on what is and is not resonating. In some ways, the role of the novice investor may actually be the most critical in helping to close the financial education gap in the U.S.
A student’s most important mandate is to consume, consume, consume, but in the case of financial education and confidence, I believe they have an additional responsibility, and that’s driving both the content and the distribution of the industry and the profession’s educational efforts. After all, they are the target audience for these materials, but as an industry, we have done a poor job of creating content that is relevant, readable, engaging and that helps consumers understand and solve the financial issues they are facing.
In my opinion, we are at a watershed moment when it comes to content in general, but particularly content aimed to support financial education. In looking at the assortment of materials available to investors, there is a vast difference between content designed to give investors a few teaser stats and then sell them on becoming a customer, and content that is truly created to help them build financial knowledge. As the shift to knowledge-driven promotion is a vitally important piece of solving the financial education challenge, investors (your clients) must do their part to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Your appeal to your clients, then, may be to dive headfirst into the content that’s out there to help them make more informed financial and investing decisions (beyond the support you already provide as their planner), and to be vocal with their feedback. While we must do our part to become more effective communicators, we are also relying on them to help us get them the materials, messages, do-it-yourself support, products and services that they need, when they need them.
Instead of talking at each other, we need to shift the communication between investors, financial planners and financial services to a more open, transparent and ever-evolving model. It’s the only way to do it right. While investors are the stakeholders who need the information most, they too must serve as teachers, as a rising tide should help lift all boats.
Regardless of where we stand on the financial knowledge scale, we can all keep learning. The financial and investing world is constantly changing, and the more we know, the more we can at least attempt to make a difference. We certainly have our work cut out for us in building financial knowledge and confidence in our country, but each of us have a mandate as teachers and students to do what we can to continue to chip away at the iceberg.
Dan Martin is the Director of Marketing for the Financial Planning Association, the principal professional organization for CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNERTM (CFP®) professionals, educators, financial services professionals and students who seek advancement in a growing, dynamic profession. You can follow Dan on Twitter at @DanW_Martin and on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/danmartinmarketing.