It may seem strange that a rock ’n’ roll band is traveling the countryside, talking to kids about finance—but in my mind nothing is more rock ’n’ roll than the freedom to make your own decisions, follow your own path, and level the playing field for others who are working hard and putting their best foot forward.
After making my own financial mistakes, as well as talking to thousands of people at clubs around the US and UK, it dawned on me how much financial literacy could be the bedrock for so many other issues in people’s lives, especially young people who still have a chance not to repeat their parents’ difficulties. Students and parents alike have told me heart-wrenching stories of losing their homes, divorces, bankruptcies, turning to drugs and violence. So often these problems stem from not seeing any other way out or any way to get control of their lives.
I wanted to be a full-time musician/gypsy since watching Gene Simmons breathe fire live as a four-year-old at my first rock concert at Cobo Hall in Detroit, Michigan. Throughout my teenage years, I thought a record deal would solve all my problems. I believed I would simply get rich quick, buy my momma a house, and any pain or strife would magically disappear. Well, I have met many artists who got the elusive record deal and ended up more unhappy than ever. As it turns out, I have walked a much slower but rewarding path. Through many years of getting up early to write and going to bed late to play live, I have built a long-term career in the music business—an incredibly competitive and ever-changing industry. It took constant work, leaps of faith, and surrounding myself with an amazing team of trusted people. I have written hundreds of songs, self-released records, toured every state in the union, built several recording studios, met some of my musical heroes, and best of all, made some incredible friends through my travels – including the sponsor of this week’s tour stops here in Asheville, North Carolina, Dawn Starks). But it’s been a long, hard climb. Many kids see the bright stage lights and have no idea the struggle almost every artist has gone through who can sustain more than a fleeting moment of fame and success (and the two are certainly very different things). So much of what determines long term success is not just working hard (essential), or luck (great if you can get it), but financial literacy (slow and steady wins the race).
I decided to tell this story to students around the country through a charity I conceived and helped to found, http://fundingthefuturelive.org. Over the past 6 years FTF has grown leaps and bounds due to it’s amazing board and sponsors all over the country who believe in giving young people the tools they need to succeed. Besides playing clubs, theaters, and festivals, we now play almost 100 high schools a year for FTF Live.
We start each of the FTF shows with a film showing us traveling the countryside, meeting several other famous musicians, and placing music in some of the most popular TV shows and movies around. We then do a loud, heart-on-our-sleeves set of music – just like we do at clubs and festivals—leave it all on stage, play til you bleed, bring out your dead. You are taking the time to watch; we are gonna put on a show. No cynicism and no fear. We are lucky that since we play music and dress rock n’ roll, the students forget we are there to tell them something their teachers and (if they are lucky, parents) may want them to learn. I liken us to a kind of musical Trojan horse. We enter the school auditorium to kids screaming and waving their lit-up cell phones in the air, but by the end of the hour, facts, figures, and advice are pouring out alongside a PowerPoint presentation. Ugh. So not rock ’n’ roll, right? But the kids are incredibly receptive, which we hear in the Q and A after the show and the comment cards we get back from the charity.
The overall message is that without a basic understanding of finance and some real discipline, this world gets very tough very quickly. For some of the schools we play (with free and reduced lunch numbers above 95 percent), the world is already tough for these kids, and predatory lenders like payday loans are setting up around them to prey on these struggles. This is about fairness, and it’s about income inequality. I graduated from high school with a better understanding of geometry than I did my own checkbook, credit card, or credit score, and I certainly hope that students now leave school with a better understanding of financial life lessons than I did. They are up against more, and there are predatory financial schemes waiting for them even before they leave high school. (I have seen same-day lenders in some cities already advertising in high school newspapers.)
Using as many real-world examples and as many current photos/videos of their heroes as we can dig up, we discuss predatory lending (think same-day lenders, title loans, checks sent to the house with triple-digit interest the second you cash them). We discuss the danger of credit card debt, student loans, and the importance of looking to our own communities for support and mentorship. We look at the myths and false images of overnight success.
We discuss sports stars, rock and hip-hop stars, and Hollywood, many of whom end up owing more than they could make. Six out of 10 NBA players and 78 percent of NFL stars end up in severe financial stress or bankruptcy within five years of their contracts. Musicians are some of the worst with their money as well. It doesn’t matter how much they make—without financial literacy, they are back to zero. Often, these folks are further in debt than when they threw their first football or wrote their first song. Similar to lottery winners or those who receive a huge inheritance, they feel the ride will never end, and they put nothing away nor do they make any effort to keep their egos from taking over their spending habits. The value our society places on consumerism makes it very easy to feel that once we have money, we have every problem in our lives solved. I discuss the hype of social media and not comparing your inside with someone else’s outside. I tell the students that if you have one dollar in your pocket, you have more money than some of these famous people trying to sell us on the idea that more stuff is what will make us happy.
This is about teaching the students to make interest, not pay interest. Without making better choices, we end up engulfed in the stress of owing someone else every moment from when we wake to when we sleep. Very simply, “Control money or it will control you.” Only 4 percent of people under 35 are making more than $35,000 a year. Additionally, 76 percent of us are living paycheck to paycheck, and 75 percent of divorces result directly from financial stress. The stats go on and on. Unbanked families are especially at risk, which is why we suggest every student open a savings account at a local bank or credit union as soon as possible.
We talk about my favorite quote from Quincy Jones: “We gotta make smart sexy again.” Our television airwaves are filled with poor examples for students to follow. Though I license music to several of the reality TV shows out there, I tell the kids these are not the folks we need to look up to. Female bankruptcy is on the rise (it’s appalling that women were not even allowed to have a credit card separate from their husbands until the Equal Opportunity Act of 1974), but our role models are seldom authors, scientists, or Nobel prize winners; they are the Kardashians. We live in a world where you can become famous for being famous, where power is achieved by being the loudest or brashest and having the most air or screen time. This is not real value. This is a facade. It is very easy to fall into the lie that fame, youth, and beauty can somehow stop the realities of life from creeping in. Our goal is to give students a basic framework and passion to improve their lives, to hold out hope that their biggest asset is still time—meaning they can still amass real wealth, even starting with only a dollar in their pockets, if they can harness concepts like saving and compound interest. We hope that with just a little bit of light out there on the path, they will seek new mentors in their communities—teachers and family members—to discuss and grow this knowledge. In the end all of this is about a lot more than just making money, and we show examples of those who got control of their financial lives to the degree they could help millions of others, such as Beyonce, who has helped fund over 31 charities. In my mind, helping and sharing with others is the only real end goal of amassing wealth. If we don’t start watching out for one another, the whole thing falls apart anyway.
I do my best to stay calm when I talk to the students about the same-day loan companies springing up around the country (both the areas where I grew up in Detroit, Michigan, and Wichita, Kansas, are flooded with these vultures). These “lenders” pose as real banks but can charge up to 1,300 percent interest a year (yes—this is not a typo). With missed payments (rollovers), the average payday lender in America charges 400 percent. Though they have linoleum countertops and safety deposit boxes like an actual bank, they are really no better than loan sharks. These companies take an estimated one billion dollars from our economy each year, and they take it from people who need it the most. I understand the argument that they are performing a service and that folks need emergency loans (this was written beautifully in J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy), but their break-even point for these loans is around 40 percent. Do we really need to force families into bankruptcy for their mistakes when we spend time and money keeping the fine print small and lobbyists at the government’s doorsteps to strike down regulations on the “alternative financial” industry? Often these establishments are charging the highest interest to the folks with the lowest incomes. This type of usury has some favorite locations, and that is typically the inner city and depressed rural areas. If you see liquor stores and low property values, you will see same-day lenders setting up shop.
Young people cannot build a credit score doing their banking at same-day lenders. We explain to students that without a credit score, they will never be able to finance a car, have a shot at home ownership, and 49 percent of employers look at FICO scores to decide whether to hire. Every year, more and more information is accumulated, stored, and sold, and the earlier these students can realize they are being judged for how they handle their finances on a day-to-day basis, the better off our communities and our society are going to be.
By the end of our presentation, we have gone through step-by-step methods students can use to save, start savings accounts, set and keep goals, budget, and avoid student loans. We discuss compound interest (and how important it is to start saving early), delayed gratification, and, equally important, staying away from people who make fun of these ambitions and dreams. Negativity begets negativity and you have to weed your garden. I tell them, “If someone makes fun of you for learning this or keeping a budget, just let ’em hate—they’ll be asking you for a job in 10 years.”
Seeing the kids wave their cell phones side to side like lighters is quite fulfilling, but the true reward is the sea of kids coming to shake hands with us at the stage after the show, telling us their stories and what’s happening in their communities, how to raise a credit score, what credit card makes the most sense—things we never knew till we were already in trouble financially. And things they never would have been thinking about if we hadn’t been able to take over their auditoriums for an hour or two and play some rock ’n’ roll.
I am a firm believer that if any of us do better, we all do better. We are very lucky to have live music to help us deliver this message, as well as some great sponsors, including several credit unions, the United Way, our friends at Raymond James, and Sacha Millstone and the incredible Women Who Rock LLC. We hope to bring this show around the country for years to come. The charity just signed up two other bands in different genres to deliver the music and the message—Carter Hulsey and The Reminders.
Only 16 percent of schools in America have financial literacy classes. The goal of the charity is to make financial literacy a requirement in every high school in the country. We all should demand that our schools include a curriculum that gives young people the tools to have a full shot at success, no matter where they start out. It’s only a matter of time before this message is as common as any English and math class. And as far as we are concerned, the sooner the better for these kids and for our communities.
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Best book I’ve ever read on these issues is “How The Poor Can Save Capitalism” by the fantastic John Hope Bryant
Wonderful blog by my friend Dawn Starks on these issues-
If you would like to sponsor an FTF show, please contact Executive Director Lynn Hattery at firstname.lastname@example.org.