How an Investment-minded Student Started Financial Literacy for You

by Diana Drake

Sohil Varshney, 16, is a junior at Oak Ridge High School in El Dorado, California. Last year, he led the team Oakridge Investment Enterprises during the KWHS Investment Competition, ultimately competing among the top 12 Region 3 finalists during the Global Finale at Wharton in May 2018. While there, Varshney became inspired to share his new financial knowledge with others. He traveled back to the U.S. West Coast, and soon after launched Financial Literacy for You, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that builds financial literacy skills among youth and families across Northern California. Since then, says Varshney, “Our impact has expanded and we have reached more than 1,000 youth with life-changing knowledge on personal finance.”

April is Financial Literacy Month in the U.S. To honor the importance of personal finance and the power of making smart decisions about the money we earn, KWHS asked Varshney to share his story as a true teen “Fin Lit” champion. His personal essay is below.

I was skeptical and surprised when I first discovered a massive paradox about the U.S.: The largest and most powerful country in the world; the land of opportunity where immigrants from all over the world flock in search of a better life; the country that boasts billionaires and successes, such as Apple, Google, and Facebook — doesn’t know all that much about money. Did you know that half of all Americans have less than $1,000 in savings, one-third of all baby boomers have no money for retirement, and, more pertinent to Gen Z’ers like ourselves, only 19 out of 50 U.S. states require high schools to teach financial skills? How can you survive and potentially prosper without the important life skill of financial literacy?

Here is my story. I became seduced by the stock market in the 6th grade, as I became more interested in self-managing my earnings from chores and dog-sitting, than just passing the money over to my parents or blowing up the earnings on candy and video games. In the 8th grade, my dad opened my Ameritrade account in the hope of educating me on the value of money. I forced myself into basic investments literature that, at first, seemed vague, tedious and uninspiring. Reading The Wall Street Journal was one requirement enforced by my Dad for keeping ownership of this money – and I disliked every moment of it at first.

And then one day the light bulb came on. I became even more financially curious as I began to understand how to make my money work for me by actively investing money within the safety of blue chip stocks. By this time, I realized I wouldn’t be getting much financial training at school, and it was evident to me that many of those in school around me were in need of them.

Process Is More Important than Outcome

Fast forward to May 5, 2018, the day of the KWHS Region 3 and Global Finale, in which my all-sophomore team, Oakridge Investment Enterprises, was among 18 other high school teams selected from around the world to present a final investment strategy designed for a hypothetical client to a panel of judges at the Wharton School. After presenting, my teammates and I took a seat and looked on as other teams gave their presentations. I was astounded by the teams’ sheer depth of knowledge. What inspired me the most was when certain teams spoke about their efforts to give back to their schools and communities by sharing their new financial knowledge with others.

As the event came to an end and the judges shared some reflections, one quote from Scott Stimpfel, a financial professional who helped to start the KWHS Investment Competition, truly stood out to me. He said, “As a leader, it’s not just about what you do here, but it’s about what you can do with this [knowledge and experience] to give back and improve the opportunity for others.” Process can be more important than outcome, and every step to improve the world, no matter how small, can eventually better our lives.

“Schools don’t teach students enough about the importance of money, let alone how to manage it.” — Subha Alluri, FLY Instructor

Upon our return to El Dorado Hills, California, I realized that I was passionate and excited by the topic of financial illiteracy, and felt inspired to do something to share my experience with those who could benefit from that knowledge. I decided that the foundation of my future organization, now known as Financial Literacy for You (FLY), a 501(c)3 corporation, was to offer a peer-to-peer resource that would teach core concepts such as budgeting, credit, and savings to youth audiences in an exciting and engaging style, and fill in the void not addressed by other nonprofits.

Marina Village Middle School was the first outreach partner that agreed to give me a shot, thanks to my own past teachers willing to trust my knowledge and believe in my passion. Resources provided by Junior Achievement and Visa Practical Money Skills (and, of course, Knowledge@Wharton High School), allowed me to not only review the educational materials I would soon be teaching to others — like defining down payments and 401K retirement plans — but also basic guides such as to how to manage a classroom of rowdy students, and, most importantly, how to convey the knowledge in a way that was fun and effective.

Soon, the time came… As an inexperienced, slightly nervous, solo instructor,  I worked in a class full of 8th graders on my first teaching day, delivering a lesson about money relating to life goals. Instead of the boisterous behavior I expected from middle school students on a Friday afternoon in August, the students paid close attention, actively participated, and connected the topic at hand with their own personal situations, such as saving for the upcoming iPhone XR or even setting aside funds for college. Maybe the candy I gave out had something to do with this!

For the students and for me, teaching this lesson was a brand new experience, and a rewarding one. Now with a story to share back at school, I was able to draw in more students to FLY, some who were passionate about giving back to the community, and others who were interested for the reason of also becoming financially literate. In the following weeks and months, FLY educated and trained instructors to ensure they were equipped with the knowledge and skills needed to confidently teach the core concepts to additional youth outreach partners.

We have taught more than 1,000 youth through numerous organizations, such as the Boys and Girls Club, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, Stanford Youth Solutions, Sacramento Children’s Home, and regional middle and elementary schools across Northern California. To ensure sustainability of our efforts, FLY has received support from big-name financial-services and communications companies, including Morgan Stanley, BlackRock, Wells Fargo and AT&T.

High school students learning and then teaching financial literacy topics is what not only makes our organization’s foundation unique, but is really beneficial to the youth we teach. We relate well with our students as a result of our closeness in age, and that also helps them understand ideas like credit score or variable expense through generationally relevant examples. Additionally, by working with students who are not that much younger than our FLY instructors, teaching concepts such as the finer details that affect creditworthiness seems more like an interactive conversation than a lecture.

Tight Budgets and Credit Scores

In the process of reaching more than 1,000 youth in the past year, our instructors — myself included — have gained new insights on the deep value and impact of financial literacy as a pathway to success and making the best possible decisions. Students feed their curiosity and questions with real life, financial-responsibility situations they envision for themselves, even months and years away.

Here are a few of the fin lit questions we hear most often:

Q: How do you properly balance a budget in college when you have a part-time job?

A: In order to create an effective budget, you must pay attention to your cash flow and take into account your income stream. If you find that your budget is too tight, you may need to consider options such as reducing some of your ‘want’ expenses or finding alternate sources of income, like driving for a ride sharing company or giving campus tours.

Q: What are the keys to holding a high credit score?

A: Your credit score is based on your creditworthiness (how trusted you are in the eyes of a lender), which is based on factors like how quick you are to pay back your debt after incurring it, how much money you currently owe and for how long you’ve owed it, and your history of paying back previous debts. The better you are with paying back credit, the more creditworthy you are, and the higher your credit score will be.

Q: When should I use credit to buy something, versus other methods of payment?

A: Although buying on credit means immediately incurring debt that should be paid off ASAP, it can come with benefits, such as better security, and, often times, rewards in the form of travel points or cash back. If you have a steady income stream and a strong credit history, making especially large purchases on credit like a car or house on a long-term basis may be a good way to continue building creditworthiness and maintaining a high credit score as you make your monthly payments.

Our FLY team is always learning, too! We love to hear all the questions students toss at us. “Before I joined FLY as an instructor, I was pretty much financially illiterate. FLY not only allowed me to improve my own financial understanding, but it also showed me that teaching other students wasn’t as intimidating as I thought it would be,” says Isabella Neal, one of my high school classmates and FLY instructors. Adds Subha Alluri, another instructor: “Schools don’t teach students enough about the importance of money, let alone how to manage it. Being able to educate myself and others on such a crucial topic through this organization has been rewarding.” And one more from instructor Aidan Campbell: “As an instructor in FLY, I have learned the importance of creating an effective financial plan in order to track cash flow over time. This knowledge has allowed me to help guide my sister in creating a budget to monitor her earnings and expenses on her new debit card, which has helped her increase her savings and has helped me improve my understanding of effective budgeting.”

Learning and inspiring, with financial literacy as the outcome – I’m grateful for this new path and how it will prepare me in so many ways for the future.

Related Links

Conversation Starters

What is financial literacy and why are people talking about it? If you need some help, check out the “Money Makes the World Go Round” article found in the Related KWHS Stories tab accompanying this article.

How can financial literacy empower individuals, as well as entire communities?

We have discovered that lots of students who learn about finance are eager to share their knowledge in different ways with others. This article gives a few more examples: Have you developed new money skills and done something unique to “pay it forward?” Share your story in the comment section of this article.

4 comments on “How an Investment-minded Student Started Financial Literacy for You

  1. According to the Survey of Consumer Finances by the U.S. Federal Reserve, the average credit card debt of households in the U.S. is about $5,700. This is shocking, considering the overall wealth and power of the country. The FLY organization has been very successful in educating young students about financial literacy. Awareness is key to preventing issues such as increased credit card, mortgage, or student loan debt.

    I joined my school’s business club last year and noticed that it was not very active. There were very few members engaged in the club and consistently attending each and every meeting. I myself was hesitant in terms of managing money and properly investing. I completed our school’s financial literacy course over the summer to help solve this problem. Despite this course being a graduation requirement, the students who have already taken the course have forgotten most of the material and how important it is to manage money wisely, even if some of them aren’t interested in business. I have some friends who are interested in joining the business club but know very little about investing and managing money since they have not taken the course yet.

    Then, I decided to gather my friends with the goal of bringing them into the club. Every Wednesday, we gather at one of our houses to discuss investing strategies and financial literacy tips. I have been teaching them what I learned from taking the course and they have shared their ideas. We’ve had fun together while also expanding our knowledge of this pressing topic. One day, we focused on budgeting, which is certainly beneficial to individuals and businesses alike. Another day, we focused on the stock market. We discussed the New York Stock Exchange and looked at trendlines for specific stocks such as AAPL over a period of time.

    We all want to participate together in competitions, including the KWHS investment competition, once we gain some more knowledge about the topic and become active members of the business club. Through this experience, I learned that even though we are young now, it is crucial to plan for the future quickly so that we can consistently make sound financial decisions at every stage in our lives. While money is very powerful, much of our savings can easily be lost through one mistake.

  2. While the articles on this site are all equally fascinating and shed light upon economic phenomena occurring all around the world, I cant necessarily say I feel a personal connection with all of them. However, after reading this article, I found myself reading about someone who had lived a very similar experience to myself. Sohils club FLY is incredibly fascinating to me in two ways: it was a club that was started and run by high schoolers and that it addressed the issue of financial illiteracy that afflicts high schoolers like a rampant plague.

    As I read through Sohils recounting of the origin of FLY, it immediately reminded me of a similar endeavor that I had begun toward the end of sophomore year. Just like Sohil, a young and passionate Aaryan had identified a subject, that was perceived as complicated and boring, and attempted to make it exciting and palatable for students. While Sohil tackled the lack of financial knowledge that many teens are afflicted with, I saw the deficit for interest in STEM-related jobs as a problem that could impact the very future of mankind. While schools and educators do a more than adequate job of explaining the basic theory to students, it is the spark that inspires students to explore the scientific world on their own that is missing from the standard curriculum. The purpose of my club was never to replace the common curriculum, but rather serve as a vital supplement to it. I feel where I and Sohil really connect is the fact that we are both part of the new wave of teen activists that has arisen relatively recently. Whether it be the high school students of Stoneman Douglass, who reacted to immense tragedy with determination to prevent future tragedies by modifying the existing gun laws, or the teen activists in Paris, demanding for the government to take action to halt the progression of climate change, this generation is littered with examples of kids taking action in their respective communities. If there is one thing I have learned with my experience with Catalyst, it is that trying to change the status quo of anything as a teenager is nearly impossible. If it wasn’t hard enough to try to make meaningful change as an adult activist, student activists have to deal with a plethora of unique issues specific to being a kid. Whether it be getting ignored by adults simply because you’re a teenager or balancing homework with all the additional responsibilities that come with starting initiatives, it is definitely not easy to make meaningful change as a kid. Yet, regardless of how difficult it is to accomplish, it is undeniable that having a citizenry that is active in the society that they live in is an overwhelmingly net positive for humanity. There are many times where I feel that I am just not doing enough to further my cause. The weight of schoolwork compounding along with a missed deadline in my club can really be soul-crushing. Sohil’s incredible story proves, however, that it is possible to reap incredible success in the end.

    The crusade to teach students the importance of financial responsibility also hits close to home. The economic recession of 2008 was something that affected families and people all across the world. While I was far too young to know what the recession was, I do remember the effects of it. When I still lived in Michigan, my parents were forced to sell the Quiznos that we owned for years and our home for very little. My parents were just two people out of millions who would have to hunker down for the raging storm. The recession would serve as the crucible that tested the souls of the people against incredible odds. It also serves as a reminder to me that economics and finance are not just theoretical, but rather practical and critical practices that have the ability to change the real lives of people. I was very lucky that I was taught the importance of fiscal responsibility, but most teens are not given the same luxury. While I might not have understood why it was so important for people to be financially literate a few years ago, I now see the consequences of what happens to those who are not. A passion for STEM might help pave the way to a fruitful future, but a robust understanding of personal finance guarantees that people are prepared for doomsday situations.

    The job that teens like Sohil are doing with shedding light to critical topics that aren’t generally properly covered in the common curriculum is vital for the improvement of society. While the goal of eradicating financial illiteracy is incredibly noble, it is the whole concept of spreading one’s knowledge to others that makes Sohil story relatable and worthwhile. Reading articles like this one gives me hope that dedication to any worthwhile cause can go a long way.

    • The comment that you wrote draws meaningful connections in many facets. Your experience with Catalyst and realization of the deficit for STEM-related jobs show a clear link with Sohil’s activism. You also explored your encounter with the 2008 economic recession and its effects, which is indeed a clear example of why financial literacy is “not just theoretical, but rather practical.” Additionally, you show your appreciation for the deeds Sohil has done. I would like to discuss one of your new points that resonate with me, specifically your mention of the “spark.”

      Indeed, “spark” is the catalyst that allows the student to delve into the scientific world and actually learn. Many students like me had no idea where the fun was in the scientific world. As a consequence, I just memorized seemingly useless words and recited chains of knowledge that would be forgotten a few months later. Without the “spark,” learning was ironically the same as not learning. Luckily, the spark came to me in the form of my mentor. He told me to look deeply and question the knowledge given to me. My first reaction to his guidance was why I should be spending the double the amount of time for the same amount of knowledge. What came to me after much of this process was that the scientific world was indeed beautiful and I wanted more. Everything that we know of so far seems to connect and have real-life applications. I then applied this mindset to multiple scientific disciplines. As a result, for example, I was at the top of my computer science class, and more importantly, I have retained this knowledge. I only wonder what would have been if the “spark” had been triggered earlier — I may have become more productive. Like you said, the spark is often missing from the school curriculum. I have been asking myself why I am learning imaginary numbers for quite a while.

      I also draw further connections to Sohil’s article. Coming from an immigrant’s perspective, money is very important, especially knowing how to manage it. Not having any financial knowledge when I was younger, I always just put the money in the piggy bank. It was only until I was introduced to the KWHS Investment Competition that I gained a good chunk of financial knowledge. Even though I wasn’t a finalist, the added competition allowed me to learn new things. I gained not only financial literacy but also team communication skills. In this interconnected world, team communication skills can be as important as financial literacy.

      On an endnote, Sohil’s article and your comment were both very entertaining to read. I was able to recognize and appreciate that many people hold similar valuable beliefs and experiences as me.

  3. Sohil great cause to support- wish they had financial literacy programs in school where I grew up (CA). Amazing job on a well-spoken interview. Your parents must be proud. Cheers.

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