If there were any doubt about Americans' urgent need for basic financial enlightenment, the economic meltdown that has been taking its heavy toll on Wall Street and Main Street of late should lay it to rest.But today's rocky environment was probably far from the imagination of the legions of CPAs who responded to the American Institute of CPAs' call in 2003, asking if they'd be willing to participate in a sweeping effort to raise Americans' financial literacy quotient.

The goal then, as now, was as sweeping as it is simple: "We want to change Americans' behavior. We want to make a difference in their financial lives," said Cheryl Reynolds, the AICPA's director of communications, who oversees the institute's financial literacy campaign.

The "we" has involved the AICPA at the national level with an aggressive public service announcement and Web site strategy, as well as a number of state CPA societies and an army of CPAs operating in the trenches within their communities.

A SECOND LANGUAGE

"Financial education is our second language," said Carl George, chief executive of CPA and business advisory firm Clifton Gunderson and chairman of the AICPA's National Financial Literacy Commission. "Here's a group that said, 'Let's at least help effect some change in America.'"

That commitment came in the form of a 90 percent response from CPAs polled by the AICPA stating that financial literacy was a "very important" issue, and a 70 percent affirmative response when asked of their willingness to get involved. "We got such traction with our members; 53 state societies got involved in one form or another," George said.

Some of the groundwork for state-level and local CPA outreach has been laid by the success of the "Feed the Pig" public service announcements, which, according to Reynolds, rank among the top 10 PSAs, right up there with McGruff (the take-a-bite-out-of-crime dog) and Smokey the Bear.

"In the past year alone, we had more than $57 million in donated media. The vast majority are run during prime-time slots," Reynolds said.

The ads, which seek to persuade viewers to shun non-essential spending in favor of establishing a debt-reduction and long-term savings plan, drive viewers to the AICPA-sponsored www.feedthepig.org and www.360financialliteracy.org sites. Both are laden with financial educational materials, calculators and other resources.

"We get upwards of 250,000 visits per month" to the 360 Degrees site, Reynolds revealed. Interest in sections of that site dealing with real estate finance has grown dramatically in recent months as foreclosures have soared, she added.

In California, where real estate has always been a source of obsession and financial anxiety, Angie Grainger, CPA, PFS, chairs that state's CPA society's financial literacy committee.

Grainger, a vice president in the Wealth Management Department of the Exchange Bank in Santa Rosa, Calif., has long had an interest in the financial education of young people. She once organized a "youth business week" in her community. "It's a boot camp for teens on business concepts," she said.

EXPANDING THE EFFORT

When the AICPA began making the push for financial literacy more broadly, Grainger embraced it. She has partnered with the National Endowment for Financial Education to secure training for California CPAs to conduct basic financial education programs in high schools throughout the state. "We've reached over 15,000 students in the past three years," she said.

Some 1,300 CPAs in California are on call to give presentations when a school expresses an interest, she explained. California's CPAs also train teachers to deliver a financial literacy curriculum to their students. Basic topics include understanding credit cards, how to balance a checkbook, borrowing from a bank and basic investment concepts.

"I'm now getting requests through nonprofits and employers to do a six-week adult education program," Grainger said.

Adult education is a high priority for the Texas Society of CPAs, according to Steve Goodman, who chairs that 28,000-member society and runs Goodman Financial in Houston. He gave up his public accounting practice to become a fee-only financial planner 20 years ago, which has given him abundant exposure to financial literacy - as well as the lack of it.

The Texas society sponsors a Web site, www.valueyourmoney.com, with both universal financial education materials, as well as tips of perhaps greater interest to Texans. The site recently featured a hurricane season primer (prior to the recent devastation caused by Hurricane Ike) on the financial implications of coping with natural disasters.

Goodman said that the Texas society is preparing to launch a "Texans for Financial Literacy" Facebook page, in an effort to reach a younger, Internet-oriented audience.

PRACTICAL ADVICE

Goodman advised fellow CPAs who give financial literacy presentations to use tangible illustrations to underscore the principles that they are trying to communicate. "You need to match your illustration to the audience," he said.

In a recent presentation to a group of young adults on the topic of savings, Goodman chose a commonly cited example of expensive discretionary spending, a $4 daily cup of Starbucks coffee during a workday. He added to that figure the estimated $7 incremental cost of eating a simple lunch out versus packing one from home, and told his audience that the $2,860 annual extra cost would exceed 7 percent of a $40,000 salary.

At a financial literacy lecture that Goodman attended, a colleague made the point that a product purchased for $100 using a credit card, without paying off the card balance, incurring 18 percent annualized interest charges, could effectively raise the price of that item to $500 within a relatively short span of time.

"I heard a young person say, 'Wow, I'm better off saving and buying it with cash.'" That led a gratified Goodman to conclude that the point had hit its mark.

WOMEN AND FINANCES

CPAs who take up the cause of financial literacy can tailor their efforts to their own interests, noted Elsie Rose, a CPA and shareholder with Young, Hyde & Barbour in Glen Allen, Va. A former chair of the Virginia Society of CPAs, Rose has focused her energies on raising the financial literacy of women. "Their needs are very great because of the difference between men and women in income, life expectancy and the ability to put money into retirement savings," she said.

Her presentations go beyond the ABCs of money. For example, she has made the point to middle-aged women thinking about helping their children with a down payment on a house that they may ultimately be doing their children a bigger favor by saving instead for their own retirement, ensuring their ability to live independently in retirement and not become dependent upon their children.

Does the enlightened self-interest that Rose appeals to in her presentations apply to the CPAs themselves who invest time in financial literacy efforts? For her, it's all about "giving back to your community."

That's also the mantra of the AICPA. "This is a public-service initiative. It's not related to CPAs selling a product or service," maintained George.

As a practical matter, the typical audience for a financial literacy lecture, by virtue of age or economic status, isn't a strong prospect for a CPA's services. A possible exception involves offering worksite-based employee education programs. Cultivating a relationship with business owners could translate into business some day.

Still, finding clients does not appear to be much of a motivation for many CPAs to advance financial literacy. However, some long-term benefit may accrue to the profession, to the extent that this outreach leads to a better public understanding of what CPAs do - or even that they exist, according to the Texas society's Goodman.

Positive visibility for the profession is needed, over the long term, to keep a steady flow of manpower entering the field, he said.

MORE WORK TO BE DONE

The ultimate question, however, is whether these efforts have an impact on the intended beneficiaries - the financially illiterate. The jury's still out.

In California, Grainger noted that annual surveys of high school students by an organization called Jump Start suggest that financial illiteracy is growing worse, not better. However, one might argue that it would be growing worse at a faster pace, absent the efforts of the California society.

Measuring the effectiveness of state-level efforts may not be at the top of state societies' priority list. "We can't do as much research as we'd like to assess the program," conceded Shawnte Reynolds, a spokesperson for the Virginia Society of CPAs.

But AICPA survey data does point to a positive impact from the Feed the Pig campaign. According to Reynolds, "We know that people who have seen the ads are more likely to take certain actions." For example, "27 percent of people who have seen the ads are willing to increase their savings," versus 16 percent of those who had not.

AICPA surveys suggested similar upticks in the likelihood of viewers maintaining a budget, comparison-shopping before making a purchase, and saving to achieve long-term goals.

But are people actually acting on these intentions?

"We've done follow-up surveys with people who receive our weekly e-mail tips," Reynolds says. The verdict? "We're definitely changing behaviors. There is no doubt about it."

George said that the key to helping the financially illiterate apply the lessons they've learned is not to overwhelm them. He tells people, "You're not going to change your financial condition overnight. It's about starting now, and taking small steps."

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