Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz has a simple message for parents and schools: Teach your kids about money.
The certified financial planner — who also is board chair and president of the Charles Schwab Foundation — is on a mission to make financial literacy as important as any other life skill taught, both in school and at home.
While Schwab-Pomerantz has been pursuing this for at least 15 years — even working under both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations on financial capability policy — she and other advocates still face a steep challenge.
Only 19 states require financial literacy curriculum in high school, and not all of those mandates are created equally. And among U.S. adults — many of whom never took such a course in high school — just 34% can get at least four questions right on a basic five-question financial literacy quiz, according to the FINRA Investor Education Foundation.
Couple that with the ongoing shift to 401(k) plans and away from traditional pensions, and the result is many workers charged with funding their own retirement have no idea where to start or how to fit savings into their already-squeezed budgets.
CNBC talked with Schwab-Pomerantz at the recent Schwab IMPACT conference in San Diego about the state of financial literacy in the U.S. She also weighed in on changes in her industry, from the perspective of a woman (and the daughter of Charles Schwab, founder and chairman of the same-named company).
CNBC: As far the push for financial literacy goes, what has changed over the years that makes it more of a focus now?
Schwab-Pomerantz: A lot of it has to do with the changing ways of how retirement is paid for. The pension has dissipated because of costliness. The 401(k) [plan] has been the primary vehicle, along with the [individual retirement account], which means that individuals have to not only save for themselves but they also have to invest. And as you know, families don't talk about money, schools don't talk about it and employers historically haven't talked about it. There used to be no need to understand it because you were more likely to be taken care of through your life. So the world has changed. And also there are a lot more choices, a lot more complexities in the industry itself. So it's just overwhelming.
CNBC: So how does a person sort through all those complexities?
Schwab-Pomerantz: Well, if I could wave a wand or be queen for a day, we would make financial literacy mandated in all 50 states. Right now there are 19 states where it's mandated in different variations, whether it's embedded in an economics class or as a standalone course. The best-case option is having a standalone course. FINRA has done evaluations in some states and shows that credit scores go up after going through a course. So you can see the benefits of financial literacy. And school is a way to level the playing field.
CNBC: Even if all 50 states suddenly implemented such education, we still would have a huge population who didn't go through that kind of class. Do you feel like for them financial advice is fully democratized? Is it accessible?
Schwab-Pomerantz: Well, it is certainly democratized in the sense that it's on the web. There are so many programs out there. It's readily available, in other words. But it isn't always easily accessible. But then it depends on whether an individual is willing to go and learn themselves and take it on. So we've been trying, all of us — including CNBC, too — to make it accessible so people can feel more confident.
CNBC: What about reaching women, who tend to lag in investment confidence and knowledge?
Schwab-Pomerantz: I'm going to be repetitive, but I think school levels the playing field for everyone because we'd all have equal access. What's happening now is that as parents, we talk to our daughters differently than we do our sons. With our daughters, we talk about savings and budgeting, and household expenditures. But with our boys we talk about investing and borrowing, which are really the key vehicles to building wealth and financial security. When we bring that to the attention of parents and say, 'Hey, we're setting our daughters up for failure,' then we'll be a little more cognizant of how we approach that difference.
CNBC: Do companies have more of a responsibility to their employees than just giving access to a 401(k) or other retirement plan? Should their role go beyond that?
Schwab-Pomerantz: I think employers want their employees to retire financially secure, and at Schwab we see many of our corporate clients express the desire to educate their employees on financial wellness. So there's a social responsibility aspect to it, but there's also a business imperative. Financial stress leads to employee absenteeism and lack of productivity, which affects a company's bottom line. Through workplace financial education, we not only reduce one of the largest triggers of external stress, but we create a supportive environment in which everyone can thrive.
CNBC: As a woman who's been in finance for some time, have you seen changes in how women in the industry are viewed and treated?
Schwab-Pomerantz: I think we've seen a number of changes for women in all areas of society — including in the workforce, in general, and in the financial services industry, specifically — but we still have a long way to go. I've been fortunate enough to work for a company that treats everyone with respect but, as an industry, we can do better. I've seen the industry work harder to recruit more women and to have their workforce reflect the diverse clients they serve.
CNBC: Are there things that the industry should or could do to encourage more women to get into the business?
Schwab-Pomerantz: Studies show females tend to make up their mind about what career they want to pursue at an early age, which means we need to expose more young girls to money earlier in life in order for them to consider careers in finance. That's one reason I think teaching financial literacy in schools is so important. Through our financial education programs with Boys & Girls Clubs of America, we see middle- and high-school students become more interested in money and more interested in pursuing finance-related studies in college.
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