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Is Financial Literacy Going Mainstream?

Financial Literacy In Pop Culture

You probably wouldn’t expect to hear evidence of important social and economic progress on “The Sports Junkies” – a popular morning radio show that airs on Washington, D.C.’s 106.7 The Fan.  But that’s exactly what I got a couple of weeks ago when tuning in for my daily dose of EB, Cakes, JP, and Lurch – four childhood friends who’ve parlayed their entertaining chemistry and love of sports into what many would consider a dream job.

The Junks had former MLB player and current MLB Network studio analyst Cliff Floyd on, and after discussing the current season and the fate of the Washington Nationals with the former All-Star and World Series champ, the conversation actually turned to…financial literacy.  Floyd had been featured on the ESPN documentary Broke, discussing the financial pitfalls that await professional athletes, and the Junkies – like most folks in the middle of their working years – are somewhat obsessed with wealth management and the prospect of retirement.

“Were you fiscally responsible with your money when you were making a lot of cash, or did you give it away and spend it and buy a couple of houses and a bunch of cars?” one of the hosts asked Floyd.

I did both,” he replied honestly.  “I came out of high school, and that’s all I was trying to make my point about doing ‘Broke.’  I didn’t get a chance to go to college, and you’re giving a guy 300 grand out of high school. I was 18 years old.  I had never had more than $200 in my life at that point. … And then all of a sudden I get this check for $300,000.  So now you do this and then you play a couple years and now you’re making $250,000 every two weeks.  Well, I mean, you go figure – when you talk about going to buy the cars and buying your parents the home – I come from the hood.  So, yeah I’m going to go buy my mama a house, yeah I’m going to buy my brother a car.  But you gotta be careful, and that’s what I was trying to get out to these kids.  It’s like, ‘Yo, the money has changed, times have changed, but the world hasn’t changed.  They’re still shady out there.’

Cliff FloydFloyd also talked about buying a $65,000 platinum Rolex at one point, but he made sure to note that he bought it knowing it would retain a lot of resale value (and that he still, in fact, has it).  In short, Floyd learned a great deal about money and the ways of the world through his own experiences, and he is now hoping to help others avoid learning things the hard way.

When we did Broke, it was more to get the word out,” he said.  “It was about financial literacy, getting these guys acclimated with what’s going on in the real world.  If you just Google these financial advisors and these Ponzi schemes and see all the athletes that’s a part of it, it will amaze you.

[Editor’s Note:  You can now compare, rate, and review financial advisors on CardHub’s sister site, WalletHub]

Besides providing some behind-the-scenes tidbits about life as a big leaguer as well as the production of a popular documentary, this interview (which you can listen to in its entirely above) illustrates how financial literacy awareness is spreading into popular culture.  With student loan debt out of control and more than 70% of parents saying their kids don’t know the basics of money management, that’s an important first step toward ensuring that future generations will avoid the same types of financial struggles we’ve endured in recent years (or worse).

Is Financial Literacy Cool?

ESPN's Broke Documentary“Economics has always impacted popular culture,” says Neal Lester, the associate vice president for Humanities and Arts at Arizona State University, and there are indeed many recent examples of athletes, entertainers, popular TV shows, etc., showcasing financial responsibility and/or offering topical learning opportunities.  Those listed below are only a small sample.

  • Broke:  Part of ESPN’s acclaimed “30-for-30” series, this Billy Corbin-directed documentary explored the financial misfortune of numerous high-profile professional athletes, including Bernie Kosar and Curt Schilling.
  • J Cole:  On a song titled “Mo Money” off his recently released sophomore album, Born Sinner, the St. John’s University grad, turned chart-topping hip-hop artist asks, “How mama gonna teach you how to save your money / When she barely on the boat got stay afloat money?”
  • Slim Thug:  It may be hard to believe given his stage name, but this rapper – born Stayve Thomas – penned a book called How to Survive In a Recession.  “Nobody taught me how to be responsible with my money,” he said when interviewed about the book by US News.  “Growing up in the hood you don’t learn basic [stuff] like this.”
  • Big Sean:  “The things I think about the most are things I never know though.  Like, why don’t schools teach more mathematics, less trigonometry and more about taxes?” Detroit-native Sean Anderson asks on his 2012 mixtape, Detroit.  “They at the chalkboard, teaching us ass backwards.  How about preparing us for life, instead of lab rat us?”
  • Mac Miller:  “What would I do with a million dollars? / First off, I’d start payin’ bills to my father / Then pay for college…,” Pittsburgh-native Malcolm McCormick raps on his new album, Watching Movies With The Sound Off.
  • Entourage:  While Vince and the boys didn’t control their spending too well, viewers did get a sense that the characters were living beyond their means, as the star’s accountant was constantly hounding him about frivolous purchases.
  • Modern Family:  The hit show on ABC isn’t afraid to explore important social issues, and in a recent episode one of the mothers on the show conveyed the same type of frustration that countless folks have endured in recent years, saying:  “I thought I would be going back to work when the kids got older, but it’s not as easy as you might think. People aren’t exactly lining up to hire a woman who is almost 40 and has been out of the job market for 15 years.”  Steady income and an awareness of the economic landscape are important components of financial literacy, after all.
  • YouTube Videos:“It is likely that economics, along with the prevalence of social media, has led to a number of self-created music and other kinds of performances on YouTube and other social media outlets,” Lester says. “Folks may not be able to travel to audition sites for American Idol or America’s Got Talent, but they may upload a video of themselves singing and stars can be born if the right person sees it.”
  • Talk Shows:Talk shows are known for having segments on do-it-yourself projects and other ways to be frugal, but it seems this type of programming has increased in recent years. According to Lester, “The attention to affordability of things like clothes and products is certainly more visible on some shows like the TODAY Show, Wendy Williams and The View, for instance, where regular segments on air travel, staycations and vacations, and Steals and Deals feature alleged bargains.”
  • NFL Players:  The National Football League and Visa have teamed up on a financial literacy campaign that includes players visiting local schools to preach responsible money management as well as “Financial Football” – “a fast-paced, interactive game that engages students while teaching them money management skills. Teams compete by answering financial questions to earn yardage and score touchdowns,” according to the initiative’s website.

Perhaps the seeds of this phenomenon were sown back in 2005 at the first annual Hip-Hop Summit on Financial Empowerment (which was, of course, organized by Russell Simmons).  Or maybe enough people simply came across the 2009 Sports Illustrated article that revealed 60% of NBA players go broke within five years of retiring and 78% of ex-NFL players go bankrupt or endure “financial distress.”  Or the statistics that show student loan debt is up over $1 trillion, while unemployment among people 18-254 is in the 13-23% range.  Or the stat that revealed only about 2 in 5 adults keep a budget.

Regardless, one would assume that mainstream attention is a positive sign.  The more people who are talking about important financial issues, the more awareness there will be, and ultimately (hopefully) that should help improve our habits, right?

Experts Analyze the Role of Financial Literacy in Pop Culture

Financial Improvement for Young PeopleWell, “big events get ‘reflected’ or represented in pop culture,” according to Bruce Carruthers, a professor of sociology at Northwestern University, and the Great Recession was undoubtedly a big event.  Besides, the more you think about it, the disparate approach that pop culture takes toward wealth and financial management really does reflect the radically different qualities of life lived by different classes in this country as well as the recession’s disproportionate impact.

Parts of popular culture turn to the rich with fawning admiration: wow, they are the ones that made it; but other parts of popular culture touch on those left behind, and that’s where your observations about lavish lifestyles looking uncool come in,” says Paul Croce, an American Studies professor at Stetson University.  “Haggerty, aka Macklemore, offers a powerful example of this, especially with ‘Thrift Shop;’ it’s an anthem to living free of corporate brands—and thrift shops should take note: songs like this could make their storefronts cool.  And his method of operating without record labels shows the potential for social media to have a democratizing effect.

Or, for a more cynical perspective, could it be that the preponderance of financial responsibility-related messages in pop culture is actually a way to spur consumption and aid an ailing industry?

It isn’t that the content of popular culture changes to suit the mood of a recession, it’s that the form of popular culture changes to suit the economic climate,” says Dustin Kidd, an associate professor of sociology and popular culture at Temple University.  In fact, the culture industries are going to be more focused than ever on sending a message that we need to consume in order to get the economy going again. We see that in both the content of popular culture and in the advertising that goes along with it.

The conscious involvement of individual celebrities is debatable and probably case-dependent here, but whether promoting everyday products and relating to the common man is the result of a classic trickle-down domino effect of executive scheming or pure happenstance, it sure makes sense as a business strategy.

A recession may lead to making responsible lifestyles look cool, but that is still a way of encouraging further consumption,” Kidd added.  “When a star wears a famous designer to an awards show most people watching at home don’t really think they can go out and buy the same look for themselves. But if a celebrity says she is wearing a dress from Target then you will see sales of that item go up immediately. The more celebrities dress like regular people the more they can actually influence the consumption patterns of their fans, which is why we see so many celebrities with fashion lines at Macy’s, Target, and H&M.

You could certainly make the case that such trends – regardless of their intent – offer positive side-effects.  For example, if we see more of the people that we look up to (for better or for worse) wearing H&M and the like rather than the Gucci’s of the world, then fewer people will waste money on image-conscious shopping sprees.

But even so, experts are somewhat dubious about how effective financial literacy messaging can ultimately be when expressed through pop culture or even how receptive our overall society will be to it.  In fact, some believe this type of information to be the key that could open a Pandora’s Box of class-based animosity.

As an anthropologist I am constantly aware that the US is dominated by a false belief that we are a classless society, when we have in fact always been a class society, and we live currently in one in which class-based wealth and income disparity is growing exponentially,” says Linda Jencson, a lecturer in cultural anthropology at Appalachian State University.  “Because our class system so heavily relies upon the myth of a classless society, and because true financial literacy would expose the myth for its falsehood, I don’t see much change or progress towards financial literacy in our popular culture.  Just look at such media productions as Two Broke Girls and you can see that venues which purport to ‘focus’ on financial and class issues only serve to blur the lens in a variety of new and trendy ways. Despite the spread of growing financial fears and distrust, I feel that the majority continue to consider financial literacy to be too boring a subject to even tune in, search, or purchase cultural productions relating to such a dull subject.

That’s a fair point indeed, and it perhaps touches on some important issues related to the American psyche.  But that is another story for another day.  What we need at the moment is a way to truly improve financial literacy in this country in order to secure a positive financial future for our children.  After all, having celebrities tout fiscal responsibility isn’t going to cut it – no matter how effective you believe it to be.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, the fate of financial literacy will depend on the education system and, potentially, some sort of state-specific or even federal legislation.  However, socially-conscious celebrities and corporations can use their visibility and reach to do a lot of good.  One particularly interesting mode of doing so is Twitter.  Public figures have millions of followers who check out their musings countless times per day.  The right message from the right person or organization can therefore be quite effective.

The possibilities are several fold,” according to H. Kent Baker, University Professor, Kogod School of Business at American University. “Socially conscious celebrities can be earnest in using their fame to ‘do good.’ However, others may use social media to support an image and to create a brand, which is in their own self-image.

If typing won’t work, they can also test out the old adage that “money talks.” As Baker notes, “those who support relevant causes and have knowledge about them can benefit society.”

But hey, even if few people step up in this manner, we’ve always got The Sports Junkies!
Image:  Helder Almeida/Shutterstock

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