Spreading the word to youth about financial literacy

Here is how CPAs can get involved with volunteer efforts that teach the basics.
By Sarah Ovaska

Frustrated that not enough Americans understand basic finances? You can do something about it: Volunteer to talk to youth about what they need to know when it comes to their own finances. 

It's not only a chance to introduce the next generation to essential life skills such as budgeting, understanding credit, and navigating higher education financing; it's also a rewarding experience. 

"I've gotten a lot out of it personally," said Jesus Oba, CPA, who frequently speaks to high school, college, and community groups about accounting and financial topics. 

Oba, a first-generation American whose parents migrated from Mexico, wants to help youth in Latino communities, like the working-class one in which he grew up, navigate life's challenges while making sound decisions about their money. Based in San Diego, he gives presentations to groups both there and south of the border in Mexico.

Oba credits his involvement in the AICPA and California Society of CPAs with providing opportunities and support early on his career path, and now he wants to do the same for others. 

"I'd like to give back as much to the community as I've received," he said. 

Oba and other CPAs active in volunteer efforts shared their advice on how to give back through financial literacy work. While in-person talks will likely remain on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic, there are still ways to connect.

Seek out opportunities. Now that you've settled on the idea of volunteering, you have to figure out how to do that. State professional societies often connect their members with requests for speakers, which will likely include virtual discussions for the rest of 2020 and 2021 as well. The Pennsylvania Institute of CPAs (PICPA), for example, works with the Girl Scouts to schedule CPAs to talk with troops of all sizes so that scouts can earn a financial literacy badge. The California Society of CPAs has sample presentations available and can connect interested CPAs with schools seeking volunteer educators.

But don't stop there, said Steve Wimmers, a retired CPA from San Diego who championed financial literacy efforts as a past chair of the California Society of CPAs.

He suggested contacting schools in your area where you may have connections through your own children, clients, or neighbors. Consider extending your offer as well to faith-related youth groups or other community organizations. Many may be looking for ways to offer different virtual programs during the pandemic.

"Talk to schools in your community and see if they'd be interested in having a financial literacy program or presentation," Wimmers said. "It's a really easy thing to do."

Introduce the profession. Not every young person knows what an accountant is, exactly — they have an easier time understanding professionals such as lawyers, doctors, and FBI agents, who are frequently depicted in TV shows or movies, said Julius Green, CPA, who retired from Baker Tilly in 2019 and is a past president of PICPA.

But many young people want to be business owners, so when you're speaking, whether over a Zoom call now or in person in the future, detail how accountants often run their own successful firms and help clients achieve their financial dreams. That's a point that students understand well, he said.

He hopes these educational discussions are a way to bring more diversity to the profession as well, by introducing groups of young people who come from diverse backgrounds to the accounting profession and showing how lucrative and necessary the profession is.

"It's important to bring awareness of what accounting offers to diverse communities who represent the future of the profession," Green said.

Be accessible. Giving a talk to a high school class isn't a client meeting where you need to signal your experience, so try to be relatable to the youth listening to your talk.

"You want to capture their attention," said Ralph Albert Thomas, CPA, CGMA, CEO and executive director of the New Jersey Society of CPAs. "You can't come across as too technical."

When he was doing in-person talks, Oba chose to dress casually to avoid coming across as intimidating. He also tries to speak in terms that are understandable so that he can explain the particulars of things like compound interest and predatory loans without the message getting lost.

"People want to learn, but they don't know what they don't know," Oba said about the use of jargon. "They might not understand exactly the terminology, but they understand the concepts." 

Interact with the audience. PICPA, like many state societies, has materials available that anyone can use, as well as a suggested script to put presenting CPAs at ease. But a script should just be a guide. Green suggested making any presentations interactive, especially if done virtually, so that students will be engaged and comfortable asking questions. His presentations, and those encouraged by PICPA, have students do a budgeting activity at the start of the session to start the engagement early on.

"It makes it fun for them and it makes it fun for the presenters," Green said.

The AICPA also offers free resources, including sample scripts, for those interested in giving presentations.

Consider including young(er) colleagues. If you are on the older end of the generational spectrum, try including someone from your firm who is closer in age to the audience. The message will come across better from a more youthful CPA than one who is nearing retirement, Green said.

For example, he volunteered at a daylong financial education event at an inner-city Catholic high school in Philadelphia and invited along some of the younger CPAs from his former firm as well as students he teaches at Villanova University. 

The high school students tuned in more to the presentations by the Villanova students and younger professionals, who in turn got an opportunity to practice their own public speaking and communications skills, Green said. If done virtually, consider having those younger colleagues steer the discussion.

Put your jitters aside. Public speaking, even if over a computer screen, isn't something every CPA enjoys doing. But connecting with groups of young people who can really benefit from your knowledge is well worth it, said Michael Eisenberg, CPA/PFS, J.D., a principal with Squar Milner Financial Services, which has several California locations. Eisenberg worked years ago with the California Society of CPAs to encourage more financial literacy efforts in schools and continues to volunteer regularly to talk to college-age and high school groups. 

Even seasoned volunteers like Eisenberg get nervous from time to time. He suggests just pushing through that hesitation.

"Every time you get up there in with a mic in your hand, you have a little bit of jitters," Eisenberg said. 

Those nervous about public speaking can use this as an opportunity to work on their skills and can lean on the prepared materials the AICPA and many state accounting societies offer, he said. Don't worry about having to explain high-level concepts; instead, he said, be prepared to talk about finance basics such as the benefits of saving for retirement or the downside of accumulating credit card interest. 

Also, don't worry you'll be tripped up by any questions. Realize that what people ask are generally the basics, and not questions that should challenge any accounting professional. 

"Most of the questions people ask are not difficult questions for a practicing CPA," he said.

Include information about student loans. One big financial decision looming in the near future for many young people is how, or whether, they'll pay for college. That makes it a highly relevant topic to cover in any financial literacy efforts, Thomas said. (The New Jersey state professional organization he leads is hoping to convince state lawmakers to expand high school financial literacy requirements to include information on tuition assistance programs for higher education.)

He suggested including information about how to research scholarships at places like public libraries, how to calculate the costs of attending community colleges versus four-year schools, and how college debt can impact life decisions after getting a degree. College-bound students, as well as their families, need to understand the fine print of any loans they take on and how it will affect everyone years down the road, Thomas said.

"It's an issue of economics," he said.

Finally, if you're considering getting involved with this type of volunteer work, just go ahead and do it, Green said. Everyone he's spoken with who has done it has enjoyed the chance to relay valuable financial information to young people who need it.

"It's one of the most enjoyable things that I've done outside of my work life itself," he said.

Sarah Ovaska is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director, at

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