Fly Fishing and Financial Education

By Joline Godfrey 

The story of financial literacy in the U.S.A. is discouraging. Though more schools have integrated financial literacy programs into their curricula and more families are intentional about nurturing financial fluency among their children, maxed-out credit cards, high levels of debt, insufficient savings, low credit scores, and family financial drama are indicators that we have a ways to go to increase the financial literacy and wellbeing of our families and our nation.

If even the most intelligent among us continue to have low FICO scores and make questionable financial decisions, what’s going on? I have two stories that offer a clue.

The first is the story of the Jones Family. I stood waiting in a sunlit conference room for family members to arrive for their quarterly family meeting. 15-year-old Evan was first to arrive: ”Ms. Godfrey, I want to tell you about my latest fishing trip!” Before I could respond, his dad piped in, “Oh Evan, there’s more to life than fishing.” I watched Evan deflate as his father minimized a passion Evan carried within his seemingly lonely soul. Other family members were streaming into the room and I had little opportunity to recover that moment, though it weighed on me as a missed teachable moment.

Six weeks later, in another part of the country, with a different family, we’ll call the Browns, an uncannily similar story with a different ending unfolded. Once again, I was waiting for the family to arrive in yet another sunny room. And as it happened, 15-year-old Adam was first to arrive. “Ms Godfrey, let me tell you about my flyfishing idea!” With great excitement he explained his decision to “go flyfishing in every state in the U.S. and blog about it!”

I had no idea if that was even possible, but before I could comment or ask a question, his dad mused out loud, “I bet if you contacted one of the big outdoor companies, they might sponsor your blog!” The two continued to talk, building on the idea. I simply watched the scene unfold, amazed by the difference in the outcome of these two, almost identical father/son moments.

These two very different approaches to financial mentoring, demonstrated by the two dads, offer a path to effective financial education. In the first story, Mr. Jones had a clear idea of ‘what is important’ and fishing wasn’t it. His view was that fishing for Evan was a distraction from the ‘real importance’ of his school classes, the more serious part of his life.

Mr. Brown, on the other hand, seized the moment with his son and turned it into a lesson on finance. Over the course of the next four months, Evan was coached to turn his idea into a business proposal, sent inquiries to different companies, had an actual meeting with one and saw his idea through to an actual paying project. His dad helped him increase his vocabulary, think critically about an idea to hone and present it, and nurtured his entrepreneurial spirit simply by supporting an idea that, on the face of it, was a little crazy.

I told this story in a family meeting recently to make the point that the best financial education is often immersive, building on the passions and interests of family members, rather than fighting them. A few weeks passed before I saw Max, one of the people in the room that day. Max offered a third story; not of fishing but of snowboarding.

“When I was a teenager, my dad was frustrated by all the time I spent snowboarding,” Max said. “He wanted me to knuckle down and focus on learning the family business. But I was good at snowboarding and could see the business opportunities. I was able to get serious sponsorships and managed my snowboarding like a business. For a long time the tension between us centered on what Dad felt was a rejection of his business and a waste of time.

“My dad started out like the father in the first story. But I was lucky. Over time, as he saw I was learning and treating my interest in snowboarding seriously, he became more like the dad in story two. He ended up supporting my snowboarding and helped me develop my own business.”

This last story was heartening. I don’t know what happened to Evan. Not surprisingly, his family did not continue with financial education as I practice it and fell away as a client. I hope Evan, like Max, stood his ground and held on to his passion. I’d like to think the lessons he learned from his days fishing nourished him with the inner peace and strength of character he would need to stay true to what was important to him. I’d like to think that, like Max, he used his passion to learn, explore and become, in his own way, financially fit. I like to think that Evan’s dad, like Max’s dad, eventually saw that his son WAS focused on ‘what was important’. And that, like Max and his dad, Evan acquired financial fluency as he and his father grew closer.

I tell the stories of Evan and Adam often because we still think of learning as something that happens in a room – a classroom, a conference room…somewhere within the boundaries of an outline and a formal structure and walls. Obviously that is one a way to learn. But it is not the ONLY way… and when it comes to financial education, maybe it is not the BEST way.

Copyright Joline Godfrey All rights reserved. 2017