Financial Literacy for Everyone – Drew Guthrie (POY 12)

Financial Literacy for Everyone - Drew Guthrie (POY 12)

Drew Guthrie is the COO at the FoolProof Foundation, which is improving financial literacy in many ways. He is driven by lessons from debt in his own life.

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Transcript

This transcript may differ in minor instances from the audio content. Please notify Josh Morgan of any errors you may find.

Monologue by Josh Morgan

This is The Plural of You, a podcast about people helping people. I’m Josh Morgan.

Drew Guthrie is a banking and finance professional from Boulder, Colorado. He’s currently the Chief Operating Officer at the FoolProof Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes financial literacy throughout the United States. With Drew’s guidance, the Foundation serves an umbrella for several projects covering almost all ages and many social groups, but their primary program offers a free curriculum in finance for high school teachers. Their websites also serve as an excellent introduction to finance for regular folks like you and me. I talked with him via Skype about FoolProof and his own history with debt, and I’ll play that conversation in a moment.

Drew and I spoke on the phone once or twice in preparation for this episode, and our interactions helped me realize that anything can be used as a tool to help others. I have to be honest, and I don’t think I told Drew this, but I didn’t think too highly of people in the finance industry before I talked with him. I mean, I thought Drew was an exception, of course, but I know now that I’ve been painting people in the industry with broad strokes. That’s because I’ve let negative events and news stories over the years influence my opinion. Now I see that there are people like Drew who are working to demystify the industry.

This may be a little weird, but I keep thinking about the invention of stone tools in this case. If you ask someone who imagines all humans as selfish and competitive at heart, they might imagine a sharp stone in the hands of our ancestors as an instrument of violence. If you ask someone who’s more of an optimist, they might imagine the uses as ones that could be shared, something that could be used by one person to help those they’ve bonded with. I think finance works the same way. There are people today who would use finance as a weapon against others, but there are also those who use it to share something with other people. What I’m learning is that it’s all about intent because that’s what gives meaning to everything that we as human touch.

Another thing I learned while reading up for this episode was that the ability to plan and budget finances is a luxury for many people. I mean, I’ve studied that for years and I’ve experienced it first-hand, so I knew that, but I came across one website that helped me to spell it out. It’s USFinancialDiaries.org, and that’s a project where spending was tracked for a year among a group of low-income and moderate-income families. Researchers found that spikes in income and expenses often didn’t match in these households, and without savings in place, they often resorted to debt to make ends meet. We all know that can be a vicious cycle to break out of. That’s where financial literacy educators like Drew can help.

I’d never talked with someone as deep into finance as Drew before, so I was a little intimidated. We seemed to have a few things in common, though, like our war stories with debt, so it’s nice to see that it’s possible to recover from tough financial decisions. I’m also interested to see how financial literacy will change in the United States over the next few years because I’m sure Drew will be a part of it. I think you’ll enjoy what he has to say, and he offers some great advice that I’m going to try in my own life. Here’s Drew Guthrie, COO at the FoolProof Foundation.

Interview with Drew Guthrie

DG: Hey, Josh. How are you doing?

JM: I am great. It’s good to hear from you again.

DG: Yeah, yeah! Nice to hear from you!

JM: Yeah!

DG: How are things going?

JM: Great! How’s your day been?

DG: Oh, fantastic. Staying busy and that’s always a good thing.

JM: [laughs] Of course.

So I was looking through your résumé after the first time we talked. I’m a little humbled that you agreed to talk with me. It seems like you really know what you’re doing!

DG: [laughs] I appreciate that. I look good in two dimensions.

JM: [laughs]

DG: No, it’s great. I absolutely love talking about FoolProof. As we talk more, that will become pretty obvious. I just so believe in what we’re doing. Any chance I get to talk about it, whether it’s with you or friends or family, it’s hard to get me to be quiet about.

JM: Could you describe the FoolProof Foundation and what you do there?

DG: Sure, sure. The FoolProof Foundation—we really focus on peer-to-peer teaching of financial literacy. Our target market currently is anyone from age about 13 up through senior citizens.

What we do is we focus on what is affecting that individual at that individual life stage. For older consumers out there, we actually have guides such as retirement guides and vacation guides to help them really focus on making sure they get the best deal and really get the most bang for their buck. When we get into those individual life stages, those decision points such as buying a car, buying a house, we have guides specifically for that.

When you’re talking about the age range that’s really focusing on buying a car or a home, they are ready for that information right then and don’t want to sift through a whole lot of fluff. That’s why we offer car buying guides, home buying guides, mortgage guides to make sure you get the most bang for your buck. We really look at what happens at each individual stage and then we break that down further when get into talking about a younger audience. [We] have modular assignments where the kids can work through it on their own or under teacher supervision.

JM: It sounds like your organization covers a lot of ground. What of types of problems are you looking to address with all of these programs?

DG: A lot of the problems out there are surrounded by a lack of access, especially people just not knowing what resources are available for them in their individual life decisions. We’re looking at the overarching goal of people being able to help themselves. People get inundated with all sorts of advertisements and marketing material. That’s a marketer’s job, is to go out there and promote why their product is so great and all the benefits of it. That’s perfectly fine; we have nothing against advertisers and marketers out there.

Our job is to educate the consumer and arm the consumers with the knowledge of what to look for in advertising, what really meets their individuals needs. We teach those critical thinking skills, teach people to be skeptical about what they’re seeing out there. Again, they’re getting inundated with so many messages that we really want to focus on that level of skepticism to think, ‘Okay, this sounds great but how does it affect me as an individual?’ Once we develop that critical thinking through our younger programs—for example, FoolProof for High Schools and FoolProof Solo, [which] focuses on college age kids—we can start building up that critical thinking so they can make smart financial decisions throughout their lives.

We want to make sure that anybody who wants access to an individual’s wallet or well being, we want to make sure that they think about that critically and make that smart decision that’s best for them, not based on an advertisement they saw.

JM: What is a typical day like for you? How do you play into these different roles in the organization?

DG: Technically, my role is Chief Operating Officer of FoolProof. The best analogy that I can give is I am the conductor of an orchestra. I work with a lot of extremely talented individuals that are all focused on the common goal of making that music and making that financial literacy the best possible financial literacy for the end user.

A typical day for me: I work with our tech team to make sure that all of our websites have the proper messaging out there. We have tons of projects going on to help find different target markets to be able to help bring that personalized peer-to-peer financial literacy out there. I work with our internal team in regards to that.

We also have a ton of collaborative partnerships out there. These partners are anywhere from other nonprofit organizations that have a need for financial literacy that serve a group that would like to have a financial literacy element in them. I work with those groups in developing the curriculum, [learning] what those groups are trying to accomplish, and how can FoolProof help them accomplish their goals.

We have a wonderful curriculum out there that can be used by anyone for free, but it’s designed to be twenty-two classroom sessions: twenty-two, 45-minute classroom sessions. That may be more than what people are looking for, so I work with partners out there to really drill down what exactly they’re looking for, be able to focus their message, to be able to deliver it to their group as best as possible.

JM: The twenty-two sessions, is that at the high school level or is it a separate curriculum?

DG: We have twenty-two classroom sessions for our high school program. We also have individual programs such as FoolProof Solo that have an equal number of sessions, as well.

JM: I know you have resources on your website. Are those similar?

DG: Yes. We have tons of resources out there. We have taken apart our modules and have a program called Fast Facts, where people can use a search function on FoolProofMe.com to be able to find those quick hitting articles about, if they’re looking for credit cards or checking accounts, whatever type of financial topic they’re looking for. Scams—scams are a big issue out there. They type that in, and they’re able to get the quick hitting information right at their fingertips, right when they need it.

JM: I was reading a little about your story, and it seems like you might be able to relate to many of the people you’re serving now, as far as learning about finances the hard way, at least in the beginning.

DG: [laughs]

JM: Could you explain what your experience has been with finance and how it’s brought you to where you are today?

DG: [laughs] I got permission from my mom to tell this story. I didn’t want to throw my mother under the bus because I love her to death. [laughs]

JM: Of course!

DG: She was the one who introduced me to credit. She gave me a credit card when I was in high school for emergency purposes. The mentality of an 18 year old decided that the big sale at the big clothing store constituted an emergency. What was funny about that is that I was able to pay it off, and it ended up being a bad lesson for me. It taught me that I could buy something before I had the money for it. That took me down a completely wrong road.

When I got into college, I ended up applying for a ton of credit cards, getting a ton of credit cards. Before I knew it, I was absolutely buried in debt. I thought I was being smart about it, but the reality is it was what you’d call escalating debt. It just kept going up and up. Then I finally decided to get a hold of it.

I went as far as to go through credit counseling. Bankruptcy wasn’t for me. I took these debts out and I wanted to be able to pay them. I worked out a plan with credit counseling to be able to lower my interest rates and to be able to get that into one, easy payment. That was the plan that worked for me. It worked extremely well. That, coupled with a new appreciation for keeping a good budget, was a very important piece to it. Through all of that, I was able to come out ahead, be able to get my credit under control.

I just feel so incredibly lucky that I learned that lesson the hard way but at an early age when the stakes weren’t as high, not having a family to support. Josh, I really like to tell my story about how I essentially had ostrich syndrome. I buried my head in the sand every time a creditor called because my payments were late. I didn’t want to deal with it, and I thought that hiding my head in the sand was the easiest approach. Once I took control of it, took the reigns, I can’t say I’ve ever been happier.

JM: I’m glad to hear that.

Would you say those experiences influenced your interest in finance as far as a career? Is that why you chose it as a major in college?

DG: [laughs] Well, Josh. Part of my getting out of debt was to become a part-time teller at a local credit union so I could monitor my accounts even more closely. [laughs] You could say my poor history with credit in the beginning launched me on the career path I am on today.

JM: [laughs] That’s one way to keep up with it.

I guess this is sort of a tangent, but I know you have a history with credit unions, specifically. Was that a conscious choice, like choosing that over more conventional banks?

DG: It was. Let’s see. I grew up in Kansas and moved to Colorado to go to school. When I moved, I was researching financial institutions. The local credit union seemed like the best one for me. I enjoy the credit union coop mentality, people helping people and the fact that everyone are members.

That being said, throughout my career, I went into the compliance world and I worked with a lot of community banks. There are some fantastic community banks out there, as well. My career started and really flourished in the credit union realm, and I appreciate all of the credit unions out there.

I’m not sure if you know this, but FoolProof was initially funded by credit unions. We got our start by partnering with some local institutions that wanted to sponsor FoolProof in their communities. Through their generous support and donations, we’ve been able to grow FoolProof and be able to extend the reach of FoolProof thanks to credit unions.

JM: Is that support still ongoing? Is that how you receive most of your funding?

DG: Yes. We receive funding from both credit unions and we also have the Foundation. We are a 501(c)3. We do have charitable donations and then a grantmaking wing, as well.

JM: You have the background working in banking and credit unions. I’m wondering why you chose to transition into nonprofit work.

DG: It really comes back to my story, Josh, about getting in trouble with finances. I figured the more people I can tell my story to, the more people can learn from my mistakes.

I’ve worked with FoolProof ever since the beginning. My credit union in Boulder, Colorado, was one of the original FoolProof credit unions. I was on a focus group, myself and my future wife, were on a focus group to help look at what peer-to-peer teaching for the college-age range looks like. What kind of messaging gets through? What are we being taught in school at the time. My love of FoolProof has gone way back to 2003, since its inception.

When I was still working in credit unions, I taught Financial Fitness through Boulder County. That program was part of their Section 8 housing voucher program, where all individuals receiving vouchers had to go through a series of classes. I taught the class on banking and accounts. That was just a fascinating experience to see those light-bulb moments, where the individuals in the class are, like, “Oh, I get this!” talking about concepts of 0 percent interest loans. Are those really the best for you? Are there any other incentives that you’re giving up to get that 0 percent interest loan? Talking about the real dollars of it, that’s always been a love of mine.

When I spoke with Will deHoo, our founder, he’s always known my passion for it. The opportunity to join FoolProof came up, and I absolutely jumped at the opportunity.

JM: That’s so cool.

Would you mind talking about the concept of defensive thinking? I know it’s something you’ve encouraged at FoolProof, but I haven’t heard of it before.

DG: Sure. It’s the concept of knowing that anyone who wants access to your money, you have to be defensive about it. You have to be skeptical of other people’s motives. It’s not saying that anyone’s wrong. You just have to be conscious and aware of what’s the message that you’re receiving and what helps you, what are your internal goals. Does this product or service help you meet your goals? That’s where the term defensive spending comes in.

JM: Why do you think there’s such a gap in access to financial education?

DG: Well, I think you nailed it in—

JM: I know that’s a broad question.

DG: Well, being able to access financial literacy is the big issue out there in that there’s so much noise. There’s such a variety of messages. What are the right messages? What really helps me as an individual consumer out there?

I think that’s a challenge we’re always facing in making sure that everyone has access to the proper education. It really starts at a young age where, frankly, a lot of states don’t mandate financial literacy be taught in their schools. Thankfully, we’re seeing that change. There are more and more states coming online that require a full semester class of financial literacy to be able to graduate high school. I don’t know about you, Josh, but that would have helped me tremendously. It would have prevented a lot of the problems that I got into when I got into college, if I would have had that education at a younger level.

I really think that it would help society as a whole if we can get that financial literacy component being taught a younger and younger age, where it becomes inherent in all of your decision making. You grow up as that defensive spender, you grow up being skeptical about ads that you see out there, about anyone that wants to touch your money. If you can start that at a younger age, I really think that creates long-term health for our overall economy.

JM: Right. I can agree with that.

I realized after we talked the first time a few days ago. In talking with you and reading FoolProof’s website, I’m realizing that finance can be used as a tool for good. I just think that’s fascinating.

DG: You know, Josh. The reality is that there are going to be bad seeds in every single industry out there. Unfortunately, the banking and financial industry has its fair share that tend to dominate headlines out there.

What FoolProof does is breaks it down to the individual consumer level, how you can help yourself. FoolProof’s goal is that you won’t fall prey to the bad seeds out there, the negativity out there, where you can develop a plan on your own so you can go in with a certain level of knowledge, no matter what kind of transaction you’re in, whether you’re taking out a loan for a car or a home or in the savings and investing realm, being able to arm yourself with the knowledge of what questions to ask. What are those questions that makes sure you’re getting the proper service that you’re paying for?

There are a lot of good tools out there. There are some fantastic players in the industry, people who want to help you and help their communities as a whole. It’s up to us as individual consumers to do that research to make sure you’re supporting the good guys out there, if you will.

JM: How would you suppose that finance could be used for good?

DG: It really comes down to helping each individual accomplish their individual goals. One thing that we talked about was the thought of savings. What does that really mean?

To get back into my background, when my wife and I were engaged, we had a goal of buying a home. We honestly didn’t have good savings habits. We really looked at, “Okay, what would really help us build up that savings so we know, once we have a mortgage, which is a kind of a large budget item, that we could sustain that?” It’s really great. We started off at $5 each per paycheck. We put that into a savings account and looked at it, okay, next time the payday rolls around. “Well, that wasn’t so bad. Let’s boost that up to $10.”

We went in small increments to the point, when we were ready to buy our home, we’d grown our savings enough so our savings plus what were paying in rent would equal our mortgage payment and what we were budgeting for bills. When it came to having a mortgage, it wasn’t a large stress on us because we had already worked it slowly into our budget. That was over, gosh, probably one and a half to two years before we could get up to that dollar amount.

Starting small, I think that is really, really important. Set those goals that you can make. You get a series of victories together, and it is such an amazing feeling. As long as you can have that savings account in there that you don’t touch, seeing that grow—gosh. It’s is such a wonderful feeling. All the sudden, it just becomes internalized. It’s a lot easier to save and work that into your budget over the long term.

JM: That’s great advice. I’ve had an on and off relationship with saving, currently I would say off. It’s tough to make that decision sometimes, but what you’re saying about starting small, $5 a paycheck, that’s feasible.

DG: It’s not only feasible, but I had to trick myself. This was a fun little strategy that I worked out. The first withdrawal from savings is always the hardest. Once you make that first withdrawal, then the second one—”Oh, it’s easy. It’s equal to the reason I had the first withdrawal,” if that makes any sense.

What I did was I set up two savings accounts, where my goal was to save $20 for this paycheck, but I wasn’t quite sure if I was ready to make that big of a jump. I put $10 in the secondary savings that I know I wouldn’t touch, then $10 in this primary savings that, if my budget didn’t work out or some unexpected expense came up, then I could touch that primary savings. The reality is that secondary, that actual savings, it gave me a buffer inbetween just in case my budget didn’t work out. I was able to protect my primary savings and still keep that going, but help me get through those lean moments.

JM: That’s really great advice.

Is there anything that’s surprised you so far in your time working at FoolProof?

DG: What really surprised me was the variety of messages out there, and that’s one big challenge FoolProof has. Just as an example, there is a large bank out there that has a page set up talking about consolidating credit card debt, what to do if you are in credit card debt. It’s set up for a good reason, but one piece of advice was that, if you have a mortgage or any kind of equity in your home, to refinance your credit card and roll it into your home loan.

Personally, I think that is not good advice. You go from having a debt that is unsecured—and we’re talking worst case scenario here. This page was set up for consumers in trouble that are looking for that help. They could be teetering on that bankruptcy line. Who knows what their individual situation is. It takes that debt from being unsecured debt to, all the sudden—that credit card debt, you have your home riding on it.

It’s that kind of advice that we are fighting against. Yes, on the surface, it looks like a good idea because, yes, it would reduce your interest rate. If it’s secured by a home, then you get a lower interest rate than unsecured credit cards. The reality is, if you are in dire straits, all of the sudden those credit card bills are now secured by your home, that is really tough.

If you’re in that type of situation, look at credit counseling. It may not work for everyone, [but] it definitely worked for me. That’s an opportunity where you can lower your interest. Yes, it’s not the best for your credit, but gosh. In the long term, if you can pay all of that off—like I said, I went through credit counseling. I can guarantee you my credit score is over 800 now because I was able to work through that. I paid all of my debts, with interest, and I was able to work out a bit on the back end of it. I didn’t have to put my home up as collateral for my credit card mistakes.

JM: Oh, good for you.

I’m curious. This may be too personal, I’m not sure. What makes you happy about your financial situation now?

DG: What makes me happy is not having any credit card debt. Like I said earlier, I learned my lesson at a young age. It took me about two and a half years to rack up over $10,000 in credit card debt, and it took me about five years to pay it off. Going through those five years of paying it off—yes, it felt good—but it always stuck in the back of my mind. I’m paying, now, using today’s dollars to pay for a decision I made five-plus years ago. Just that thought creeping into my head—I promised myself that I wouldn’t get into credit card debt.

It comes down to knowing what it took to come out of that credit card debt, all of the work. Trust me, it is so worth it on the end. There is light at the end of the tunnel. If you are willing to make those sacrifices and work towards eliminating the debt, it is such a wonderful feeling on the back side of it.

JM: I’m sure.

What makes you the most proud of your time at FoolProof so far? What’s been gratifying about your job?

DG: Every day is gratifying, Josh. The big problem with FoolProof is that there are so many people who need what we do. We do everything in our power to touch everyone that we can, but the reality is that there are more populations out there that we haven’t touched yet. Being able to work with our collaborative partners, finding out what’s going on in their communities and how FoolProof can help, that’s so extremely gratifying. Hearing from the teachers, the individual high school teachers that use our high school program, talking about how it lights up the kids’ eyes, where the kids finally get it, internalize what credit means and how finances play into their future. That is extremely gratifying.

The most gratifying would be when we hear from those students, high school and middle school students who take time out their day to write a few sentences or a paragraph thanking us for what FoolProof brings to the classroom, telling us what they’ve learned about credit. We’ve had some students write about how they’ve taught their parents about credit and the banking system. I can’t imagine anything more gratifying than that.

You talk about those low-income families out there. That is a potential change where they can start saving, moving up, having a better quality of life, and hopefully stop living paycheck to paycheck.

JM: What would be some ways that a typical listener might be able to take better care of their finances?

DG: I would start, honestly, by just taking a deep breath. Let’s be honest: finances are not the most fun topic. That’s what FoolProof tries to do is bring the fun into it. That’s what our high school program does.

If you’re already outside of that and looking at what can you do to improve your individual finances, like I said, take a deep breath and get a handle on what you have. It’s simply making a list and looking at what debts you have out there. As important, what are the interest rates you pay? Start looking at which items are beneficial to pay off first. There are some budget items that have tax deductible interest, whether it be interest on home loans or student loans. You have to get a picture of yourself.

If you have a lot of debt out there, if you’re struggling to make those monthly payments, it is so important to not fall more than thirty days past due. That affects you credit, and that affects so many aspects of your life, whether it be the amount of deposit you have to pay out for a utility or a rental to the amount of insurance you pay. If you’re a higher credit risk, you get charged more. Gosh, make sure you do everything in your power to not make any payments more than thirty days late.

If you’re teetering on that line, get some help out there. Look at your complete picture and make a plan to budget it out. Make sure that you keep track of your higher interest loans and get those paid off first. It’s scary to look at how much interest you pay on a monthly basis. If you have something at 19 percent or more, you’re paying so much in interest that it’s hard to get ahead.

JM: I think I’m right when I say that you have resources and guidelines for these sorts of things on your website?

DG: Absolutely. You can go to FoolProofMe.com and look through all of our consumer guides, our buying guides. Look through our news stories, as well. We have items like starting an emergency fund, little tidbits of information to be able to help you make those decisions and make what decisions are right for you.

JM: If listeners want to follow FoolProof or get in contact with you, what would be the best way to do all of that?

DG: Our main website is FoolProofFoundation.org. That is a good jumping off point to many of our different programs. As I’ve mentioned before, FoolProofMe.com is a link to our consumer guides, our buying guides, and our consumer news. That can also launch you into all of our education portals.

If you’re a teacher, FoolProofTeacher.com. That is specifically for our high school program that just gets great results. Last school year, we had over 27 million pageviews to our high school program alone. If you want to get a hold of me, just hit the Contact Us button on any of those websites, and the email will come to me.

JM: Sounds great. I guess that’s all I have. Is there anything you’d like to add?

DG: Our primary program is our FoolProof for High Schools program. Like I said, 27 million pageviews just last school year. If you know any teachers out there, any educators, we are out there. We are 100 percent free. We are 100 percent agenda free. We are the real deal, and I hope that any teacher that needs to teach financial literacy goes and checks out FoolProofTeacher.com.

JM: That’s so cool. I’m very humbled that you made time to talk with me, Drew.

DG: Oh, it’s great, Josh. Like I said, I just love talking about FoolProof and telling people about my mistakes. If I can affect just one person by telling them my mistakes, then I’ve done my job. That’s one person who won’t have to go through what I had to go through.

JM: Yeah, and I can relate a lot to your story, too. My mom gave me a credit card right out of high school, and I kind of used it the same way you did. I’ve rebounded from that, although now I have student loans. I find your story very inspiring, and I really appreciate it.

DG: Thanks. We all have student loans. That’s a real problem. It’s going to be interesting to see what kind of legislation might change the student loan world. Keep fighting it, keep paying those off. Some day, we’ll all be debt free.

JM: Well, congratulations on all of your success. This has been so cool to talk with you.

DG: Yeah, and best of luck with your podcast.

JM: Yeah, thank you. I’m gonna keep going as far as I can.

DG: Alright, Josh. Good luck with everything, and have a wonderful evening.

JM: Okay. You, too, Thank you again, Drew.

DG: Take care.

Conclusion by Josh Morgan

This episode of The Plural of You was produced by me, Josh Morgan, in toasty Edinboro, Pennsylvania. Mike Martinez created the music.

Visit PluralofYou.org for transcripts, show notes, and other resources. You can keep in touch on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter at PluralofYou. Subscribe by searching for The Plural of You wherever you get your podcasts. If you’re listening through iTunes, please leave a review for The Plural of You to help others find it, too.

In closing, here’s a homework assignment.

According to an analysis from AnyBirthday.com, which is a birthday reminder service, the months with the highest number of birthdays are September and October. If you have friends with birthdays coming up, make it a point to call them or visit them in person, if possible, and give them your best wishes. Research shows that these methods of contact are much more personal than messages via the Internet, so think about doing that whenever birthday reminders pop up on Facebook or on your calendar.

By the way, if you’re interested in porting Facebook’s birthday reminders to another app like Outlook, Apple Calendar, or Google Calendar, I’ve written a quick guide for it on this podcast’s blog. You can find a link to that at PluralofYou.org. I hope this assignment will bring you and those you care about closer, at least in some small way.

That’s all for now. Thanks for helping.