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Jumpstarting the Next Generation's Financial Education: Spotlight on Laura Levine

12/20/2018

By Julie Ross

Laura Levine speaking about the Jump$tart program Many of us assume the ins and outs of personal finance come easy to those in the financial services industry. But that wasn't the case for Laura Levine, President and CEO of Jump$tart, who stumbled into the financial field, quite by accident.

"My background is in communications. I worked first in the credit union industry and then the securities industry as a reporter, a marketer, and a communications director… I've often said that every other job I've ever had was just training for this one and that this is where I was meant to end up. I just didn't know it."

Levine's gained experience at some of the most well-known institutions in the financial services industry including FINRA (then NASD) and NASDAQ before making the jump into the non-profit sector. While she may lead Jump$tart, a coalition of more than 100 national organizations and a network of 51 independent, affiliated state coalitions committed to advancing young financial literacy today, she wasn't always an expert in personal finance.

"I'm passionate about financial education because I didn't grow up in a household where finances were readily discussed and—this might surprise some people—but finance doesn't come naturally to me," Levine shared.

"Working in the financial fields, I realized that as consumers, we all must try to make smart financial decisions, whether or not we have personal, professional, or educational backgrounds in it. There are a lot of really good, really smart people in this world who, for whatever reason, don't have experience with finance. I like to think that in my position, I represent them."

“Working in the financial fields, I realized that as consumers, we all must try to make smart financial decisions, whether or not we have personal, professional, or educational backgrounds in it.”

As a financial education advocate, she's made it her mission to help adults and children alike get sufficient education and guidance to manage their money well throughout their lives.

Below, Levine shares her take on the role personal responsibility plays in financial education and how Jump$tart is committed to empowering the next generation of American children (and their teachers!) get a sufficient financial education.

JR: It's evident looking through your experience that you're very passionate about financial education. Tell us why.

LL: I'm passionate about personal responsibility. As consumers, I believe we should all be able to expect regulations that protect us, professionals who guide us, and institutions that treat us fairly. But I also believe that to some extent, it's incumbent upon each of us to make our own good decisions, to try to do the best with what we've got. We live in a world today where information is plentiful and if it's available to us, we should use it. Financial education helps us take responsibility for ourselves and our families.

JR: You've been doing this for a long time. How have you seen the industry change throughout the course of your career?

LL: Well, a lot has changed and a lot has stayed the same. Financial products and services are changing so fast, it's hard to keep up with it all. On the other hand, the principles of finance really don't change at all. We teach consumers to shop around and compare prices before they make a purchase—that's good advice whether you're buying a horse and buggy or a flying car. In financial education, we try to help teachers (and parents and others) apply timeless principles to ever changing environments.

I think a lot of change in financial education actually pre-dates me. One of Jump$tart's founders used to talk about how financial lessons were well embedded in subjects like math in the earlier parts of the last century. It wasn't necessarily identified as financial education, but it was there. Then, in the latter half of the last century—triggered by the space race of the 50s and 60s—our country's educational emphasis shifted to preparing students for technical, scientific, and other "white collar" careers and to do that, the country had to get more students into college. While that certainly wasn't a bad thing, a lot of practical education—including money management—fell by the wayside. Jump$tart was founded in 1995, as more consumers, especially young consumers, were getting themselves into too much debt and the founders of Jump$tart promoted education as part of the solution. Wisely, they understood that credit and other financial topics can't be taught well in silos, and the effort for comprehensive financial education sprang from that.

“Our challenge is making it enough of a priority that schools will commit to including it in the curriculum, to providing good resources, to training and supporting teachers who teach it…”

In the past decade or so, what we're seeing is that more people, schools, etc. are aware of the benefits of financial education and are generally supporting of the notion; however, it comes at a time when school budgets are more and more strained and there's a lot of competition for time in the school day. Very few people think financial education is a bad idea. Our challenge is making it enough of a priority that schools will commit to including it in the curriculum, to providing good resources, to training and supporting teachers who teach it, etc.

The good news is that financial education continues to get better—both through trial and error, as well as research into what's effective. In the beginning, our field put a lot of its focus on financial education resources—making sure we were covering the right content in the right manner. While that's still important, we've expanded the scope to also focus on the financial educator—recognizing that a well-prepared, well-supported, well-motivated teacher is key to making financial education really count.

JR: What excites you about your work—
and what keeps you going?

LL: I'm a mom. I want my son's generation to be better prepared than we ever were. As a mom, the work I do professionally, is personal.

I think we're making a difference. It would be hard to work as hard as we do, for as long as we've been doing it, if we didn't think we were making a difference. And we're not just making a difference "nationwide," we're making a difference for families, consumers, classrooms, and kids, individually.

It sounds corny, but if I won the lottery, I'd work here for free. Jump$tart is unique in that we are not only advancing a mission that I believe in, we're doing it in a way that's really different and I'm really proud of. As a coalition, Jump$tart doesn't compete with other organizations in the financial literacy field—we represent them and we celebrate them! When our partner organizations are doing well, we're their biggest cheerleaders. Our partners and affiliates—and the wonderful people who represent them—are a community and their willingness to collaborate in the financial literacy field is exemplary.

Most of our society has finally woken up to the fact that teachers don't get enough appreciation or respect. Over the past decade, Jump$tart has been in a position where we've been able to show teachers—at least the personal finance teachers—a little bit of love. And while supporting teachers is part of our mission based strategy, getting to thank them and treat them like rock stars on occasion just makes it more fun.

JR: Money can be a challenging topic for families. For those who may not know where to begin… What advice would you give parents with young children as it relates to financial education?

LL: I often tell parents not to worry so much about trying to "teach" their kids about finance, but to focus on just talking to their kids about finance to raise their awareness and comfort level. And it doesn't need to be "the talk," like one big birds and the bees kind of discussion. It's usually more effective if it's just included in more routine discussions. The good news is that there are now a lot of resources that can guide parents on what level of financial topics might be appropriate for all ages of kids. And for those parents who want to go a bit further in teaching their own kids about money management, there are educational resources and money management tools to help. A lot of them can be found through the Jump$tart Clearinghouse and on websites such as MyMoney.gov.

I tell parents not to be too hard on themselves or their kids, especially to start. When we teach our kids to ride two-wheel bikes and they fall off, we don't give up. We don't decide that they're unteachable or that the bike is defective. We encourage them to try again until it becomes easy. So if you're trying to teach your kids to save or budget and they "fall off" the plan, don't give up. Try again.

Then, I tell parents that one way they can help their kids learn about money—even if they (the parents) don't know much themselves; even if they've made their own mistakes—is to advocate for financial education. Parents can ask their own kids' teachers, school administrators, after school programs, organizations—is financial education part of the program or curriculum? Today, there are so many resources and programs, and so many of them are free, that a simple prompt from parents may be what it takes to get the ball rolling.

JR: What's your hope/goal for financial education in America? How close are we to achieving that?

LL: Your last question teed this one up nicely! Earlier this year, Jump$tart announced an initiative that we're calling Project Groundswell. The goal of Project Groundswell is to increase classroom based financial education 25% by 2025 and increase teacher training in personal finance 25% by 2025—with a commitment not to stop until every student in America gets a sufficient financial education in school.

In January, we'll launch the first campaign under this initiative—a public engagement campaign called Check Your School. Both Check Your School and Project Groundswell will attempt to harness the power of parents (and grandparents, guardians, etc.) to help us start the conversation at their own kids' school to introduce and improve financial education in classrooms across the country.

Learn more about the great work being done at Jump$tart and more details about Project Groundswell at jumpstart.org.

Photo of Julie Ross
Julie Ross
Content Marketing Manager, Jackson

With more than a decade of communications experience, Julie Ross is a content marketing manager at Jackson. A graduate of Michigan State University, Julie worked in professional sports in Atlanta and Washington D.C. before making her way back to the mitten. A lover of podcasts, NPR and black coffee, Julie and her husband Jon reside in Dewitt, Michigan, with their two children, Ryan (4) and Molly (2) and their beagle, Derby. Julie can be reached at julie.ross@jackson.com.

The Jackson Charitable Foundation is the charitable-giving arm of Jackson National Life Insurance Company®. The Foundation focuses on work that is national in scope. Local community requests to strengthen families and increase economic opportunities in Lansing, Michigan; Chicago, Illinois; and Nashville, Tennessee can be directed to Jackson's Corporate Philanthropy team.