Financial illiteracy is akin to obesity on America’s problem list: Everyone acknowledges it’s a big problem, but it’s really difficult to make progress in solving it.
So H&R Block has been applying a new model to the challenge of boosting the financial literacy, especially for America’s kids, by making a game of it. The tax preparer’s Budget Challenge program, which was introduced in 2014, uses an online simulation of real-world budgeting and personal-finance decision-making for teens and high-school students.
Beyond Budget Challenge, the brand’s Dollars & Sense cause marketing platform for financial literacy has awarded $7 million in scholarships since it launched in 2009.
We spoke with H&R Block CMO Kathy Collins about the brand’s financial literacy education efforts, using gamification to help #finlit (financial literacy) engage teens and millennials, and what it’s like to run marketing for an iconic company with whom Americans have a complicated relationship.
bc: Have Americans made any progress in the area of financial literacy?
Kathy Collins: Not as much as you’d hope. I see it firsthand—the lack of understanding of basic personal finance by adults and kids. It’s not discriminating based on some demographic. There’s a lack of knowledge across all socioeconomic groups.
bc: Why is that?
Collins: Only a small number of (US) states require any kind of personal finance curriculum, for one thing. As a nation, we are trillions of dollars in debt, and so that’s just how our kids are growing up. No one is stepping in to say that this stuff matters.
bc: Why don’t parents do a better job of educating their children in what money is all about and how to handle it?
Collins: All of our research says that parents find this a very difficult topic to discuss with their kids. Some say it’s worse than the birds and the bees. And a lot of parents aren’t competent enough in their abilities to be teaching their kids. They see the mistakes they’ve made and worry about passing them on. Meanwhile, kids don’t know where to turn. They worry they’ll be worse off than their parents are.
Right now, this is hitting hardest with the millennial generation, of course. They’re getting a little bit of their financial confidence back with the job market improving, but one of their biggest fears is how to pay off their student loans. And this fear is on the mind of kids as young as 13, our research shows.
bc: So how is H&R Block trying to help?
Collins: We have three different audiences with our financial literacy programs: kids, teachers and parents. We’re doing a number of things for each of them.
Last year, we launched Budget Challenge, a simulated game where kids are playing the game of life. Like, you’ve got your first job and you know your pay; now you need to make decisions such as how much to contribute to your 401(k) and what cell phone plan to go with.
They can make these decisions with their smart phones and their laptops, and then they get “bills,” have to balance their checkbook, and budget. We also throw in some surprises, such as, “You dropped your cell phone in a pool. Did you have a plan that will get you another phone or not?” Or, “You got a flat tire.”
And there is a leaderboard of each class versus the rest of the country. The kids at the top of the leaderboard are the ones who qualify for scholarships. The winners of the scholarships get $20,000, and one grand winner at the end of the year gets $100,000, based on how they play the game and how they engaged it.
bc: You’ve been with H&R Block for 1o years now, including being VP of retail marketing and for the past two years, serving as CMO. How do you enjoy marketing this brand and its complicated relationship with consumers to create a year-round relationship beyond tax season?
Collins: For most people, it’s a once-a-year transaction; we’re the most seasonal business in the S&P 500. It’s a very different business model and relationship with the consumer and client, but it’s pretty fascinating because our business is so tied to what the government does. It’s kind of changing every day, such as the Affordable Care Act. And something like immigration, where changes are likely to come in the next few years.
And there’s a challenge in how to keep the brand relevant. We’re out there just one-quarter of the year in a big way. What do we need to do to keep our clients, as well as bring in new clients to the brand? It’s a fascinating business model and a lot of fun from a marketing perspective.