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What Financial Literacy Means to The American College of Financial Services and Me

What Financial Literacy Means to The American College of Financial Services and Me

financial literacy month The American College of Financial Services
What Financial Literacy Means to The American College of Financial Services and Me
George Nichols III
Apr 20, 2020

The American College of Financial Services seeks to remain a strong financial literacy advocate and thought leader in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead. I sat down for a discussion about what financial literacy means to The College’s future initiatives and me personally.

This interview occurred last Wednesday – April 15, 2020 – and is part of The College’s Financial Literacy Month celebration. You can listen to the roughly 12-minute discussion or read the transcript below.



Jared Trexler: At the American College of Financial Services, our mission is to be your lifelong learning partner, while we also strive to reach new communities and improve people's lives through applied knowledge and education for the benefit of society. With April being Financial Literacy Month, we are asking our expert faculty and leadership why financial literacy is important to them on a personal and professional level. These are their stories. Today we are talking with President George Nichols III. After a long career at New York Life, President Nichols gets up each morning energized to move The College forward to another century of educational excellence. George, thanks for joining us today.

President George Nichols III: Oh, it's great. Thank you for having me.

Trexler: Absolutely. Let's get right into it. So for those that don't know, you grew up in a very large Southern family. So, what did financial literacy mean to you and maybe to your parents at the time?

Nichols: It's interesting that not only was it a large Southern family, it was a poor, large Southern family, and so I don't know that we ever got around to discussing financial literacy. I remember my father saying, "Just try to get a job and hopefully you'll make enough to pay your bills. And then when you die, you don't leave anything to your loved ones." That was about as far as it ever went. But we also recognized that we did have to work, we did have to bring in income, but it really was just trying to have enough to get through life.

Trexler: Looking back, have your feelings changed about financial education, or outreach, or in your perception of money from a young kid to now looking back some 40 years later?

Nichols: Oh yes, it really has. When I think about that upbringing and then where I am today, I've realized that some of us think of money as, "I just have to have money and I want to do all of these things. And, yeah, the more money I make, the more things I can do." However, I actually have moved past the financial transaction of it to think about more, "What is it, the things that I want to do?" And it's not to buy things, it's to experience things. When I think of financial literacy today, I'm thinking about how we give people the tools, the means to understand how to use money, to use financial instruments, in order for them to do things that they want to experience in their life? Whether it's for their family, whether it's for their business, for their friends, whether it's philanthropy. In addition, when you get away from financial literacy being about dollars and cents and more about the impact that it can have on one's life to do things one desires, that's really where I get in and my perspective has changed. Early on it was like, "I really just would like to get enough money to go buy some shoes, or some candy, or buy me a car," but now that's changed.

Trexler: Sure. So, in your opinion, also kind of looking back, what role, if any, do you believe socioeconomic or racial factors played, not just in financial literacy in your family, but what you saw within your community?

Nichols: As you've mentioned, I grew up in the South in a large family. It was a very racially segregated community as well. When you think about our ability to get jobs, my mother was a domestic and so everybody knew the going rate, and they didn't pay a lot for you to clean other people's houses. My father's factory job, ultimately he became an electrical maintenance man just because someone helped him out, but most of the jobs when I grew up seeing my father and his friends, it was the janitor. And so we were very, very limited and all of the jobs mostly they were these things where you've got low income and they were the worst jobs. And so, we never had enough to ever think about: how do you use money for your benefit? So, that was a problem. We had the wrong perception, it really was. Because people who had money, we only saw what they had materially as opposed to anything else. Sometimes I think it gave us a warped view that our perceptions of people outside was the rich must be better off and they have everything and then everybody else is poor, and we defined the world as rich and poor, when that's really not true. However, that sort of changed quite a bit over the course of my life. But that's what we saw, it was a world of have and have nots. The other part that I think bothered me a lot as a youth is that for blacks who had money that were part of our community, sometimes I saw blacks not doing business with them and going outside of the community because they didn't want to be a part of them getting more money because of this view we had of the haves and the have nots.

Trexler: So, do you believe any of those factors are still prevalent in today's society? And if so, does that shape what you, as a professional now, want to do in order to create positive change in the financial literacy space?

Nichols: Yes, I think that they are still very, very prevalent. I consider myself an individual who has been fortunate enough to do well financially and live a different lifestyle than anything I ever knew about as a kid. There are so many other blacks that have been successful financially, when you look at the Oprah Winfreys of the world and the Robert Smiths of the world. But fast forward to what is happening today in this pandemic and look what's happening. When you look at blacks being disproportionately affected by COVID-19 because of their health issues that run within our community, because of what we've eaten and how we've lived over the course of our life, and that most of them are in jobs that are defined as essential. I think I read a statistic the other day that talked about the number of blacks that work as orderlies or nurses aides in nursing homes. And so, already people are saying like, "Oh, maybe they didn't get education, they didn't get this job or not," but look at what's happening to them. That, to me, is another indication that this really hasn't changed. Where that the George Nichols of the world may have been able to break off, and do well, and get an education, and learn the value of money and all the things that come with that, I still see a large portion of the black community, my community that I grew up in, that I still have family members in, and there's not a lot of difference in their worldview, their situation, than what I remember when I was a kid growing up in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Trexler: Let's transition a little bit to your professional life. Do you believe organizations take financial literacy seriously? Now, I know we're painting with a very broad brush there, so if you wanted to get even a little more granular, do you have a few examples that stick out?

Nichols: I actually think that most organizations are taking financial literacy seriously. I think they're trying to provide quality information to help people lift themselves up. I really do believe the sincerity around that. But the thing is that if you can't make it relevant, i.e. you could teach me how to balance a checkbook all day, but if I have no banking relationship, it's not really relevant to me. And I think that's the disconnect, is there's a lot of great information out there. There's a lot of organizations that I believe are very committed to this and they're doing great work, except it's not very relevant. For me to go back home to the communities that I grew up in and for me to help them, part of what I've got to do, I've got to help them get a better job. I've got to be able to evaluate where they are health wise because is that going to prevent them from keeping the job if we were able to get them a good job? And so, I think people are doing a great job, but what they've done is, "I'm going to put it out there for the people who can benefit from it," as opposed to what we're trying to do at the American College is, "Wait a minute, there's all this great stuff out there. How do we evaluate the landscape and people's situation and then try to cut through all of that and say, 'For this group, this is the best thing that we can provide for them that will help them through?'" Maybe it's as simple as, let's just help them with their credit. Or maybe it's helping them balance their budget. Or is it, how do I figure out how to get my kid into college? Or, how does it help me get to retirement? I think that we're trying to look at it first situationally for people then say, "What's the right information for them based on where they are?" And all of us are on a different scale. I was actually reading something earlier this week, and there's a couple of things that my wife and I have been talking about doing to introduce investing to African American students. And we were saying, "Well, the first thing they should do is financial literacy." Then if they do well in that, then we say, "Okay, let's get them involved in maybe The Investment Club." Then once we get them in Investment Club and they understand it then let's say, "Maybe they can even apply for a grant and we can actually give them money that they can invest along with the Investment Club." So now, it becomes relevant because it's cash to them. And when I started looking at that, I'm actually seeing a lot of organizations out there that have tried to create financial literacy programs. I mean, we already see them for college students, but is this a rich college student or is this a poor college student? And one of the programs I looked at actually says, "Here's the basics of financial literacy. Oh, by the way, here's a development side of this." So when we teach you how to dress for an interview, which is getting me ready to apply for a job, you can now start using the information you just shared. That's where I think if in the future we're going, that's what we're going to have to get to, is really thinking through situationally how we provide this quality information that really is already out there.

Trexler: That's great. So to close, maybe in a sentence or two, could you synthesize what financial literacy, if someone were to just throw that phrase out to you, what it means to you personally? Then as a leader of The College, what do you think it means to the general consumer audience?

Nichols: Yep. Financial literacy to me means that I have the knowledge to take the financial place that I'm in and use that to experience or have the things that I want within my life. But financial literacy is really the knowledge. It doesn't necessarily mean I have all the means, but I have the knowledge to take money and have it work for me for the things I want to do in life. Whether that's buy things or be able to do things for people, that's what I see it as. When I think about the general public, I think that sometimes people view literacy, the word, as a negative. So if I'm not financially literate, what does that mean? That means I'm illiterate and that's a negative. And so, I think that when I look at other people, they're like, "Oh, I don't really need that. I have a job and I'm able to pay all my bills and no one's calling me." We have to define financial well-being, if you want to use another word. We're just trying to help people understand where they are and then help them understand, what is it they're trying to accomplish? Now, let's look at what your financial situation is and then how do we help you get there? I think that we're going to have to think about, just as every organization is, people are thinking of the literacy as a negative connotation, for one. Second, I think that we're going to have to think about the delivery system because some people who are saying, "Okay, I want to learn more," doesn't mean, "I want to be sold more."

Trexler: I want to leave it there because that's a powerful statement to end. George, thank you so much for joining us today on Office of the President as The College celebrates Financial Literacy Month.

Nichols: Thank you for having me. Stay well, stay safe.