FICPA Conversations: Stuart Rohatiner on importance of financial literacy

In March, the Florida Legislature passed and Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into the law the Dorothy L. Hukill Financial Literacy Act.

Named in honor of the late Florida lawmaker, the law requires all students, starting with those who begin high school in 2023-24, to take a half-credit financial literacy class before graduating.

The FICPA has long supported the addition of financial literacy to the state’s high school curriculum and was pleased to see Sen. Hukill’s efforts come to fruition.

In honor of Financial Literacy Month, we present this latest edition of FICPA Conversations with one of our leading champions for financial literacy: Stuart Rohatiner.

A longtime FICPA member and a partner at Gerson, Preston, Klein, Lips, Eisenberg & Gelber, P.A. in Miami, Rohatiner is also a financial counselor at the Overtown Youth Center, which provides an array of services and opportunities to at-risk youth in South Florida.

We talked to Stuart about his passion for financial literacy and why early education in this space is so vital for future success.

How did you get started dedicating your time financial literacy efforts and why has it become such a passion for you?

It started when I began doing community service work. We had a firm coordinator who was looking for volunteers to assist in some of the under-resourced schools in the area, and I really enjoyed teaching the kids. It was actually my younger daughter who suggested that I speak on financial literacy. Because I could speak about anything, right? I could tell you about accounting or this particular kind of economics, but I wanted something that would actually resonate with kids in a practical sense, that they would see as valuable.

Younger people will think about saving up for an expensive pair of shoes or maybe a dress, but no one was teaching them about specific savings instruments or what else they can do with part-time earnings even from an early age. There was a void.    

Pretty soon, I was able to put together small groups of presenters – myself, a professional athlete, a sports agent, an account representative from a financial institution – and we would go over investments, checking accounts, the cost of college. The kids were mesmerized. Their faces would light up. We’re talking about consumer finance, but we would have their full attention for 90 minutes. I knew I was on to something.

Given your experience in this space, what would an effective financial literacy curriculum look like in your mind? What should young adults know by the time they’re graduating high school?

I certainly have a few ideas, and I’ve had some preliminary conversations with the Miami-Dade school system.

At a high level, students should understand their finances are something they have to take personal responsibility for. To do that, they need a working vocabulary early on, so they can understand how basic finance impacts their daily life. I personally like what we do as a group in the classes I’ve put together, because we come at this topic from multiple angles and try to inspire our students. I want this course to be inspirational.

But at a basic level, they need the foundational tools and concepts. They need to know that you can’t spend more than you make, and that you need to set money aside for taxes. They’ll need to know: How do you put together a business plan if you’re looking to become an entrepreneur? What’s a checking account? What’s a savings account? How does the stock market work? How do you get a mortgage? How can you go about securing a student loan or other financial aid for college? Should I pick one school over another for financial reasons? What kind of debt is good? What kind of debt is bad? How do credit cards work? What is a credit score?

These are questions that even a lot of adults can’t quite answer, because they were never given a financial foundation, and these dynamics play a massive role in your life.

And that’s why it’s important to get this knowledge to people as early as possible, right? Because they’re about to start making decisions that will have impacts, good and bad, well into the future.

That’s exactly right. One of the things I talk about is that when you’re a young family just starting out, there are a lot of stressors. You might be early in your life. You might not be making a lot of money just yet. You might have a kid or two. But the more you know about saving, the more you’ll be able to plan and work toward something, even if it’s on a tight budget. You can come up with common goals with your spouse. It’s never easy, but it can be a little bit easier to manage through times.

The more you know, and the earlier you know it, the more empowered you’ll be.

Think about compound interest, just as one example. Having 10 extra years of savings in a 401k or an IRA can make an incredible difference, even if it’s not a lot of money at the start. These are things you don’t yet think about as a teenager. Even in your 20s, as you’re starting to make money and maybe have discretionary income for the first time, you want to enjoy yourself. And there’s nothing wrong with that – if you balance it appropriately. We’re emotional beings, and it can be hard to be disciplined. That’s why it’s important to form good habits and to save consistent amounts on a consistent basis, even if they’re small.

On some level, I think everyone looks back and thinks, “Had I known this then, or had I done this earlier.” That’s what an education in financial literacy can really accomplish. It can teach you about opportunity cost. It can offer you a little bit of foresight, so you don’t have to look back as much in hindsight.

Beyond financial literacy being a public good, how can sharing this information and being an active participant in the educational process pay dividends for the CPA profession?

That’s a great question. The CPA profession is always looking for bright young talent. We want students to study accounting, strive to be CPAs and join the profession. Financial literacy programs give CPAs and other financial professionals an opportunity to be visible leaders in the community. We’re engaging with young people, providing a public service, and showing them a potential path for their own career. That’s the inspirational component.

And now, more than ever, there’s a lot of different opportunities and areas of practice for CPAs. We’re now having conversations about technology, cryptocurrency and even cannabis. Ours is not a profession to look past, and it’s not the same for everyone. Yes, there are opportunities to get out of school and immediately land a job with one of the Big 4; but for other students and recent graduates, life at a small or mid-size firm – where you can become a trusted advisor for individuals and small businesses in your own community – might resonate in a different way with a different kind of student that we haven’t attracted in the past. Embracing financial literacy can prove a valuable way to open up our profession.

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