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It may seem strange that a rock ’n’ roll band is traveling the countryside talking to kids about saving money (believe me, it’s the last thing I thought I would be doing as a singer and songwriter), but in my mind nothing is more rock ’n’ roll than the freedom to make your own decisions and follow your own path.

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. 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 I had would magically disappear. Well, I have met many artists that got the elusive record deal and ended up more unhappy than ever (much like the elusive sports contracts, winning the lottery, etc.). I have walked a much slower but rewarding path. Through years of six a.m to 11 p.m. grinding, hard work, and hard lessons in an incredibly competitive and ever-changing industry, my band and I have released over a dozen records, toured every state in the union, met some of our musical heroes, started a record label and publishing company, and best of all, I feel I am just getting warmed up after many years on the open road. I read a statistic the music business has been shedding tens and thousands of jobs every year since downloading. I have luckily seen slow and steady growth every single year.

I decided to tell this story to students around the country. We start with a film of us traveling the countryside, meeting several other famous musicians, and playing music in some of the most popular TV shows and movies around. We then do a quick set, playing as loud as possible (music makes the medicine go down). We are very lucky that since we dress like most of the kids, and since music is a sixth sense that almost everyone enjoys when put forth passionately and honestly, the students forget that we are there to tell them something their teachers and even some school boards want them to understand … financial literacy. I liken us to a kind of rock ’n’ roll 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. Uck. So not rock ’n’ roll right? But wait…

The overall message is that without a basic understanding of finance and some real discipline, this world can get very tough very quickly. This is about fairness, and it’s about income inequality. I graduated high school with a better understanding of geometry than I did my own checkbook, credit card, or credit (FICO) 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.



Using as many real-world examples and interesting photos/video as we can dig up, we discuss predatory lending (think same-day lenders, title loans, checks sent to the house with triple-digit interest around the corner). We discuss the danger of credit card debt and looking to our own communities for support and mentorship, while exposing the myth of rock stars, athletes, and actors who sell the false image of overnight success.

We discuss sport stars, rock and hip-hop stars, and Hollywood royalty who all end up owing more than they could make. We discuss the fact that 78 percent of NFL stars and six out of 10 NBA players end up in severe financial stress or bankruptcy within five years of their contracts. It doesn’t matter how much they make—expenses rise to meet their income, and they are back to zero. Oftentimes, they are further in debt than when they threw their first football or made their first basket. Similar to lottery winners or those who receive a huge inheritance, they feel the ride will never end, and they put nothing away nor 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. Example after example, the financial principles and discipline these athletes, rock stars, and actors didn’t learn are exactly the same ones any of us must learn to apply.

Without making better choices, we could also end up engulfed in the stress of owing someone else every moment we wake up to when we go to sleep. Very simply, “Control money or it will control you.” (For more on this, rent Maxed Out, a fantastic movie chronicling just how big the business of keeping the country in debt really is.)

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 half the reality TV shows out there, I tell the kids these are not the folks we need to look up to. For instance, female bankruptcy is on the rise, but our role models range from Snooki on Jersey Shore to Kim Kardashian, etc. We live in a world where you can simply become famous for being famous. It is very easy to fall into the lie that fame, youth, and beauty can somehow stop the realities of life from creeping in. I fell for it, and I was quite unhappy for many years. There are mentors in our communities—teachers and, hopefully, family members—students can talk to about these issues if they are made aware of them at the start.

The number one reason students drop out of college is because they cannot find the time to work and go to school. Often, they accumulate debt that stops them from keeping up with tuition, and if their families can’t back them up, they return to square one, and a cycle remains unbroken. Unbanked families are especially at risk. We are now at a place where the average family has more credit card debt than savings. This is unsustainable and incredibly stressful. I have talked to thousands of people at clubs around the country at three a.m. before forming a charity to fight this issue, and their stories can move you to tears.

I do my best to stay calm when I talk to the students about the same-day loan companies springing up around the country and around our old neighborhood back in Wichita, Kansas, where my drummer and I first started playing music back in seventh grade. These “lenders” pose as real banks but can charge upwards of 1,400 percent interest a year. With missed payments (rollovers), the average pay-day lender in America charges 400 percent. Though they have linoleum countertops and safety deposit boxes like an actual bank, they are 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 the break-even point for these loans is 35 to 40 percent. Do we really need to force families into bankruptcy for their mistakes when we spend a lot of time and money keeping their fine print small and lobbyists at the government’s doorsteps to strike down any regulations whatsoever? Minority families are the hardest hit, and often these establishments are charging the highest interest to the folks with the lowest incomes. This type of usury has a favorite location and that is typically the inner city. 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, let alone an apartment for college, and some employers even look at FICO scores to decide whether to hire. This is something we never had to deal with growing up. 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.

The workforce itself has new pitfalls the students need to be aware of. Some of America’s largest companies, including Wal-Mart and McDonald’s, are unfortunately taking a bite of their employees’ pay by replacing paper checks with “pay cards.” These debit cards require an ATM to get paid (though feel free to buy something at the store you work for before you leave). The workers’ salaries on these cards are chipped away by hidden fees such as “overdraft protection,” purchase interest, a fee for moving your own money from your debit card into another bank account, a five-dollar charge to get over-the-counter cash, and for one dollar you can even have the privilege of checking your own balance. When you have to pay your own employer to know what you have been paid, something is wrong. Some companies even charge to pay a bill online or if the card is lost or stolen.

More employers around the country are doing this. It saves the employer from cutting paper checks, the credit card companies give the employer a kickback for each card in use, and the fees rack up quickly, pushing some workers’ actual take-home pay BELOW minimum wage. The one-dollar to five-dollar fees here and there may not seem like a ton of money, but across millions of employees, the fees to the credit card companies and kickbacks to the employers are staggering. And once again, it’s workers who need the money the most that are being targeted.

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, and budget. 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. The students in the hardest-hit schools often ask some of the best questions and are the most moved by the program.

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, what’s happening in THEIR communities, and asking us the difference between checking and savings, what credit card makes the most sense—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, and therefore, the more our band learned about this subject and went slow and steady in building our own label and publishing companies, the more we succeeded. We are very lucky to have live music to help us deliver this message, as well as some great sponsors, including several credit unions, and our friends at Raymond James and Women Who Rock! We hope to bring this show around the country for years to come, eventually finding other bands, actors, and athletes to step in with us and on our behalf. 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 everyone.


A version of this post appeared in the October 2013 issue of Prairie Fire/prairiefirenewspaper.com.

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