The United States Bankruptcy Court for the Middle District of Florida in Tampa is the third-busiest of the nation’s 90 bankruptcy courts. The Southern District of Florida in Miami is not far behind as the sixth-busiest. From their respective views in the courtroom, Chief Judge Laurel Myerson Isicoff and attorney Stephanie Lieb have seen it all: The financial mistakes that threaten a family’s security; the human toll of predatory lending; and over-extended parents who use their children’s Social Security numbers, setting them up for a life of financial challenges before they’re old enough to earn a dime themselves.
A share of this financial wreckage could be averted with some rudimentary financial literacy, which is why Judge Isicoff in Miami and Lieb, a shareholder at Trenam Law in Tampa, have been among a group of legal, financial and education experts who spent more than a decade on a mission to bring personal financial literacy to the state’s public school students. The coalition of bankruptcy judges, the Florida Bar’s business law section, the Florida Council on Economic Education, the national non-profit organization Credit Abuse Resistance Education (CARE) and legislators succeeded this spring when Florida became the largest state in the nation — and just the seventh among all — to require a financial literacy course for high school graduation.
The Dorothy L. Hukill Financial Literacy Act, named in honor of the late Port Orange legislator who championed financial education, is one of the more foresighted things Florida has done for the next generation in a long time. Job losses, medical expenses and consumer debt — or a combination of those factors — are the most common reasons people file for bankruptcy. “There are some economic crises that are out of people’s control,” Lieb says. “But when you look at 18- to 25-year-olds filing for bankruptcy, that’s just because of a lack of education and poor economic choices. It’s hard to come back from something like that.”
While the group worked to bring the new requirement to fruition, members donated their time to provide informal lessons at as many schools as possible. The barrage of questions from students at each session reinforced the need and inspired them to keep going. “We weren’t going to let it go,” says Judge Isicoff. When the curriculum is implemented a year from now, students will learn simple, but enduring, money management principles, she says: “You don’t spend what you can’t afford. There’s a cost associated with using credit and having them understand the difference between wants and needs.”
For Floridians, what we don’t know about personal finance is hurting us — and our children. The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority’s Investor Education Foundation regularly takes the pulse of the nation’s financial stability, and in 2018 the organization found 18% of the Floridians surveyed had overspent their household income in the past year and 46% lacked a rainy-day fund. Less than one-third of Floridians correctly answered most of the questions in a basic five-question financial literacy quiz — a few points below the national average.
The youngest of Florida’s Gen Z and those after them (Gen Alpha is next — the oldest of this generation are starting middle school) will be the first to benefit from these new lessons, and the good might go beyond their future credit scores. The Deloitte Global 2022 Gen Z & Millennial Survey found that nearly half the Gen Z respondents say they are stressed all or nearly most of the time, with concerns about their long-term financial future the most frequent cause of that stress. They’ve seen their parents struggle with finances, and almost half are already working two jobs to make ends meet. Money mistakes are easy to make when you are steeped in a culture of YOLO (you only live once) and FOMO (fear of missing out). Gen Z has been more wary of credit cards than generations before them, but everywhere they turn in their online lives they are tempted by the latest financial quicksand product — Buy Now, Pay Later (known in financial circles as BNPL).
BNPL prompts are ubiquitous throughout social media advertising, and with a cursory credit check, or often none at all, buyers can spread a purchase over monthly installments. The trouble comes when a payment is missed and there are substantial fees; more than one-third of the consumers who use BNPL miss payments. Now a $100-billion-a-year industry, BNPL is lucrative for retailers because it leads to higher average orders and better conversion rates of browsers to buyers. That little prompt does an effective job of further blurring the line between needs and wants.
Judge Isicoff says the coalition will give Florida a few years to implement the new financial literacy course before going after the next goal of extending a similar requirement for middle school students. As for those who refused to give up this good fight, they say if education eventually puts Florida’s swamped bankruptcy courts out of business, that’s a price they’ll gladly pay.