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Sammy Spotlight: Economics Arkansas Executive Director, Kathleen Lawson

by Team Sammy

I’ve always liked to work because I have always liked to have money. Kathleen Lawson

I am pleased to share Executive Director Kathleen Lawson’s insights on kids, money and financial education.

Sam X Renick: This a question I ask everyone. It is the question I asked myself prior to creating Sammy Rabbit and entering the financial literacy industry. If you could only teach a child one money habit, WHAT money habit would you teach them? Please explain why.

Lawson: We can’t have everything right now. We have to make choices when spending our money so that it lasts to provide what we need. Whatever is left can go to what we want.

Renick: What is the most important money habit you learned as a child? Please share the story behind how you learned the habit and what impact it has had on you throughout your life.

Lawson: When I was a child, my grandfather used to say to me, “spend a penny, save a penny.” While I don’t require that extreme level of savings with my own children, they do have multiple piggy banks and have been taught that every dollar they get is not intended to be spent, but how they might also save a portion of it and give a portion to a cause they believe in.

Renick: Did your parents talk to and teach you about money as a child? Please share a little about your experience on the topic while growing up.

Lawson: I grew up in a family with eight children and two working parents. I think my parents were sometimes just in survival mode to get through the day. While we had robust conversations on a variety of topics, money was not often one of them.

Renick: Why do you think it is important for kids and young people to learn about personal finance?

Lawson: It’s a lot easier to have a game plan about money on the front end than it is to repair poor decisions on the back end. I have often thought throughout my life, “if I only knew then what I know now.” Economics Arkansas is doing its part to make sure the topic of personal finance is addressed early and often.

Renick: At around what age did you realize "money was money" or that it had a value? Please share the circumstances or how the realization came about.

Lawson: I can remember early interactions with physical money as a young kid, but it wasn’t until I was a young adult that I truly understood how money could work for me. Really understanding compounded interest was an eye opener for me.

Renick: What was your first job? Please share a little about it and what you learned from it.

Lawson: Babysitting jobs as a tween aside, my first job with a paycheck was when I was 14. It helped me to save for half the cost of my first car at 16. I borrowed the other half, interest free, from my older brother and had it paid off in six months. Having a car and turning 16 both put me in line for a higher wage job (slightly above minimum) and allowed me to have even more discretionary income. I’ve always liked to work because I have always liked to have money.

Renick: What was your biggest money mistake as a child or teenager?

Lawson: Probably not saving more, sooner. When you look at those compounded interest rates, I think boy, I should have started saving when I was 2!

Renick: What was one of the smartest money decisions you made as a child or a teenager and why?

Lawson: Working was a great opportunity for me. I sacrificed my Friday nights as a teenager to wash dishes in the back of my hometown restaurant, but I have never regretted it for a minute. It helped instill a strong work ethic and gave me extra money to pay for things I wanted.

Renick: What is one thing you think teens are doing right when it comes to money and what is one thing you think they definitely need to improve on?

Lawson: Banking has changed a lot from when I was a teenager. I used to drive thru with my physical paycheck and fill out a deposit slip. I would be surprised if many teenagers now even know what a deposit slip is. Because of the paperless money of how we spend, I know very few people that even keep a check register anymore. To me, that is a critical tracking tool. I believe working teenagers should have an account and keep a physical, or at least electronic, record of their deposits and expenses in addition to just checking balances.

Renick: Did you attend college and if so, did you work while you were in school? Please share a little about how working or not working while attending college affected you, your studies, and personal finance choices including student debt.

Lawson: I worked in high school, college, and graduate school. Based on the performance of my studies, I did not see a negative impact; however, I know different individuals have different thresholds that they can manage. My biggest financial regret in life was taking student loans when I had full scholarships and was employed adequately. I was under the impression that it was low interest and easy to pay off, yet years later I carry a balance, and it’s the second highest bill we have.

Renick: A variety of surveys indicate it is a challenge for parents to talk to kids about money. What would you say is one of the primary reasons parents find it difficult to talk personal finance with their children? And, if you have a suggestion on how they can overcome the obstacle, please share that as well.

Lawson: I think parents sometimes want to create an illusion of perfection to protect their kids. We are at a crossroad with a very big financial decision and because of this, we have very recently started telling our kids “not now” on things as simple as takeout for dinner or a toy at the store. It all adds up. In the age of social media, kids are inundated with what the Jones’ have. I have said to my kids more often that I can count, “yes they have that, but we have this.” We make choices every day in how we spend our money so I have tried to more regularly remind our kids of the bigger financial goals that we have as a family.

Renick: Why do you believe there is not more personal finance being taught in schools? Do you believe personal finance should or should not be taught in schools? Please explain why or why not.

Lawson: I know how competitive it can be to get time in the classroom day which is one reason why we are expanding our efforts to include informal education environments. That said, school is where we will get the largest volume of students. Arkansas recently passed legislation that required a set of personal finance standards to be taught in high school. That is one win for personal finance. I think to ever truly have the reach and impact that we want, then Arkansas needs to be one of the states that tests on the subject of economics. Polling shows almost unanimously that adults want personal finance taught in schools. We know the need and desire are there. Economics Arkansas is trying to do its part to ensure that teachers feel adequately prepared to teach these personal finance standards.

Renick: Cambridge University research indicates adult money habits are set by age 7. WHAT IF the research is wrong and adult money habits are formed earlier than age seven - perhaps around the age the "give mes" set in? What does this mean for families, schools, financial education industry?

Lawson: I don’t think it’s ever too late to teach an old dog new tricks. Repeated exposure is critical which is why we offer economic education training for every grade from PreK-12th. We hope that by the time a student leaves his/her education experience, he/she has had multiple points of exposure to solid economic principles.

Renick: What is your favorite book on personal finance? And, is there one lesson that stands out from the book?

Lawson: The book Smart Women Finish Rich by David Bach changed by life. I read it 13 years ago, and I still keep it on my shelf. I started contributing to retirement the month I read it.

See Part 2 of our discussion at

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