'Don’t Tell Me What You Think I Want to Hear'

NEFE President Shares Philosophies on Success, Leadership, and Teaching the Basics

Date: May 16, 2013

Contact: Paul Golden 303-224-3514, [email protected]

Ted Beck in his Denver office. Curious about the Swiss flag? Read about it in the first part of our Q&A in the summer issue of the NEFE Digest.

Ted Beck joined the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE) in 2005, before the financial crisis and when saving money was out of fashion. As the nation pulls out of recession, NEFE’s president and CEO discusses the foundation’s future, his past, and the significance of old boats and garage sales. This is the second half of an interview with Beck, the first part of which covered how the past eight years has affected the community and NEFE’s agenda.

Digest: You spent the first 20 years of your career in banking and finance before joining your alma mater, the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Why did you leave the private sector?

Beck: When I was in finance and banking, I thought that some day I might like to work in education. When the right opportunity came up I thought, “If I don’t try this, I’m always going to wonder.”

Digest: And what about joining NEFE?

Beck: I’d been working on a wealth management curriculum for the university and I kept bumping into this organization, which instead of focusing on the 20 percent of the population with the greatest wealth, focused on the 80 percent without investible assets. That was too appealing to pass up. Among my former banking colleagues, there’s been a lot of curiosity about how you get into something like this. They think it sounds like fun. It is.

Digest: What drives your passion for your work?

Beck: Those of us from the financial industry try to make this occupation sophisticated and complicated. It’s not. Most large financial decisions fall into one of seven categories: housing, transportation, savings, budgeting, education, insurance, and credit. You can boil it down to these themes and help people make informed decisions in those areas at each stage of their lives. That’s very fulfilling.

Digest: Many CEOs view their success in profits. How do you measure NEFE's success?

Beck: We look at momentum: It’s important that people pick up on ideas. It’s more than just how many people are signing up for our programs online, though we track that. External evaluation is something we use regularly, for instance when we put on a high school or college program. You can kid yourselves into thinking you’re doing something the best way. That’s not what we’re after. Don’t tell me what you think I want to hear.

Our advisory work for organizations such as the President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability, the Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) also has been successful in helping drive the national agenda on financial education. When leaders from government, the private sector, academics, and nonprofits gather to talk about personal finance, they like to have us at the table. NEFE is seen as a trusted resource and thought leader.

Digest: Where is NEFE headed?

Beck: We want to reach people at critical points throughout their lifetimes. We are especially focused on the financial challenges for young adults, which is one of the biggest risk areas. Young people no longer are starting their adult lives in a traditional job with a pension. The sooner we can get people engaged with a savings program, such as a 401(k), the better.

We’re also spending more time on diminished financial capacity. The population of seniors is growing rapidly, and with age and illness, there are varying degrees of cognitive decline that not only alter seniors’ financial decision making, but also affect the loved ones who are helping them.

Finally, we’ve been making research a starting point for everything we do, and we will continue to do this as we address the previously mentioned audiences. Research is helping us to organize the clutter of messaging out there. We don’t shoot from the hip; we speak from a position of strength.

Digest: Much of your current team arrived before you. What accounts for their continued commitment to NEFE?

Beck: We pay people to think here—to always be asking, “What else could we be doing and how could we be doing something differently or better?” If something’s not working, we stop doing it. Very few organizations have the luxury of responding so quickly.

Digest: How would you describe your leadership style?

Beck: I have three unwritten rules as a manager: Hire really good people. Let them do their jobs. And when they do something really well, give them credit for it.

Digest: What was your first experience with money?

Beck: I was always a saver, which meant that when my brother and sister needed money, they came to me. I’m the youngest and I had money I’d squirreled away from part-time jobs. I was always the alternate banking source in the family.

Digest: Have you made any big money mistakes?

Beck: I’ve stayed enamored with certain stocks way too long. And there are my boats, which you can see in the video I uploaded to Spendster.org. Living in Colorado, they don’t get much use. That’s what Spendster is all about, realizing everyone has made poor spending choices. You learn from it and move on.

Digest: Your father was a banker. Did that help steer your career in the same direction?

Beck: It helped me get a job. I was going to be a history professor, but during my freshman year, the head of the history department said there were no jobs (or very few). Plus, there was a language requirement in liberal arts. I ran into a brick wall called German, which I was never going to pass. There was no language requirement in finance, so I fell into it and I liked it.

Digest: You and your wife have four children. What would they say you have taught them about money?

Beck: Probably too much (my wife and I both were in banking). We think it’s helpful to create opportunities for kids to make decisions about money. When we were living in Wisconsin, I told our kids, “If you want to organize a garage sale, you can keep all of what you make.”

It was amazing to watch them: They each took on roles based on their personalities—one did the pricing, another did the negotiating, the others did the schlepping of things to cars. They may have asked us some questions about pricing, but mostly they did it themselves. They started to see things in terms of, “How much do I have to sell to generate $10?” At the end of the day, they divided up $150.

Digest: How do you spend your time outside of work?

Beck: My wife and I love to travel. I like to ski, and I love sailing. We see our kids, who each live in a different time zone. And, I’m a nonstop reader. But I don’t read business books. I’ll find a period in history and I’ll read intensely on it, then move to another one. I’ve been reading about medieval Venice lately.

Digest: What career or life accomplishments are you most proud of?

Beck: I’ve never done or been asked to do anything that I’ve felt was unethical, even when I worked in banking and finance. I never did anything I would be embarrassed to tell my children.

Digest: What haven’t you achieved that you’d like to?

I always wanted to play for the Cubs, but that didn’t work out. Actually, I really don’t have any regrets. And I’m not done yet, either.

One thing I really hope to do at NEFE is to build an organization that is sustainable. This is a group of people focused on an important mission. I want to make sure the organization has staying power way beyond me. There’s a new generation of Americans that will need what we do.

Digest: Do you expect you’ll ever return to the private or university sectors?

Beck: I’ve been told by my family that I’m not terribly predictable. Never say “never.”


  • Paul Golden

    Media Relations Director

    Direct: 303-224-3514
    Cell: 303-918-3620
    [email protected]


  • Paul Golden

    Media Relations Director

    Direct: 303-224-3514
    Cell: 303-918-3620
    [email protected]