CEO Stories: Mac Gardner and The Four Money Bears

Patricia O’Connell

Mac Gardner, a certified financial planner and founder of FinLit Tech, has made it his mission to help improve financial literacy among both adults and children. His first book, Motivate Your Money, was aimed at adults. As he himself started learning more about financial literacy and learning, he realized that children’s connectivity to money starts at around age seven. He himself had young children when he was asked to develop some material to help kids learn. He came up with The Four Money Bears – Save, Spend, Invest, and Give – to represent the four choices we have with money.


Investing may be the most difficult idea to teach children about, but one way Gardner does it is by connecting the idea of investing to owning not just a sneaker that they could buy (i.e., spend), but that they could buy a piece of the company that makes the sneaker, and that in the future, that one piece may be worth a lot more than it is today. The ideas are presented in a way that is palatable to children but also in a way that makes them relatable for adults who are also keen to improve their financial literacy.


Gardner says FinLit Tech’s goal is to build a bridge between financial literacy and financial technology, and he’s going beyond books, creating tools, apps, games, and other materials that schools and businesses can use to help people of all ages achieve financial literacy. And Banker Box Turtle, Lender Lion, Omnibus Owl, and Crypto Cat will be some of the characters joining the Four Money Bears and Mac himself on the journey.

POC: Welcome to CEO Stories for This is Capitalism. I’m your host, Patricia O’Connell. We have all heard of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, but what about Mac Gardner and the Four Bears? The Four Money Bears, to be precise – save, spend, invest, and give – represent the four things we can do with money.

The money bears help Mac, who is a CFP, author and founder of FinLit Tech, teach kids about financial literacy. Mac and The Four Money Bears will be joining us today on CEO stories. Mac, thank you so much for being with us today and talking to us.

MG: Patricia, thank you for having me. I’m looking forward to sharing the story of The Four Money Bears and our journey to help children with children’s financial literacy.

POC: Well, let’s dive right into The Four Money Bears. Tell me how you came up with the  concept of the four money bears and how you use them to teach kids.

MG: Sure, sure. So The Four Money Bears is actually my second book. The first book was called Motivate Your Money and I wrote it for adults. I had my practice in Houston and it was just sitting inside me. I’d been blessed to spend 20-plus years in the financial services industry and decided that I wanted to write a book, I wanted to share my Mac nuggets and a lot of the different things that I’ve experienced in my time in the industry.

And after writing the first book, one of my clients came to me and said, “Mac, I really like this first book for adults, would you be open to writing something or creating something for children?” I said, “Well how young?” She said, “Well, elementary school.”

POC: Whoa, that’s pretty young.

MG: We both had young children at the time.

In my first book I talk about the five steps to financial success: you have to plan accordingly, spend cautiously, save diligently, invest wisely, and give generously. I said, “Okay, there’s only four things you can do with money – spend it, save it, invest it or give it away. Let’s create something that an elementary school would understand.”

Kids love bears and so that is how The Four Money Bears story came to be. It is actually the story of me teaching my children about managing money and what money can do.

POC: How young were your kids when you started teaching them?

MG: Oh dear. Kids now.. my daughter now is 14, my son is 13, and Blake is the baby, he is now seven. So he was a year old. So, move back about six years, so my kids were pretty young, they were about five, six-years-old, maybe seven.

POC: And did you write the book as you were teaching them? Tell me about the sequence.

MG: [Laughs.] So, if my kids were here they’d be like, “Yes, Papa, we know there’s only four things we do with money – spend it, save it, invest it, or give it away. It’s the old beaten drum in our house. And so The Four Money Bears book is literally…the characters in the book are a bear family, I’m Papa Bear, my wife is Mama Bear and they are my baby bears. And those are just little nicknames that we give ourselves.

So the book is very interesting. The book is literally the story of me teaching my children about the four functions of money. If you open the book, you’ll see that there is a family in a car and on their weekend trips to the store and of course the kids always run to the toy aisle.

And you know, it’s nice that we can afford to buy them these things but really we just had to stop it a little bit and say, “Hey, do you know what your options are when it comes to money? Do you know you can do other things besides buy stuff?” And that’s really what the story is about. It’s about introducing this bear family, these bear children, to the other options of what they can do with money besides just spending it, which is saving, investing, and giving.

POC: How much do they really understand the idea of investing and giving? I think they can understand save vs. spend. If you don’t buy this toy today and maybe you have a birthday coming up and maybe you’re going to get some money for your birthday, you’ll have more money and you can spend what you’ve saved and get a bigger toy or get two of them.

How do you explain invest? And wow, I’m thinking maybe a lot of kids aren’t really big on giving away their money.

MG: [Laughs.] So the investing one was an interesting one. I have read the book at elementary schools, several elementary schools, and I was wondering how can I really engage these children with the concept of spending, saving and investing? And what I would do, Patricia, is I would take a $100 bill and I said, Okay, if I gave you this hundred dollar bill, what would you do with it? I called it the $100 Bill Challenge.

And of course nine out of ten kids would throw their hands in the air and they’d buy candy or they’d buy Pokémon cards or they’d buy sneakers, they’d buy something. And then one child would put their hand in the air and say, “Oh yeah, I’d put it in my piggy bank”. And I’m like, “Ohh okay, probably not the first thing you’d do but thanks for being different.”

And then I would start talking about saving and say, “Okay, if I gave you this $100 bill and you put it in a bank, a year from now you’d have your $100 but maybe a little bit of interest. But remember you said you liked those sneakers you think are really, really neat? Yeah. All right, you could also use that $100 and you could buy those shoes. Yeah. But did you know that you could buy the company that makes those shoes?”

And they say, “Really? You can do that?”

“Yeah. So instead of just having the shoe, you could own the company that makes the shoe and all those people that are buying shoes, you can actually benefit and that money, that $100 a year from now, it can be worth $200.” And their little minds, their little eyes start opening up. They go, “Really? That’s how investing works?”

“And now there’s something called risk where that $100 next year could also be worth $50. There’s the potential it could go down, but there is the opportunity for it to grow over time a lot quicker or a lot faster than if you would just have it sitting in a savings account.” So that’s how I try to position the concept of investing to kids at that age.

POC: What about give?

MG: Giving is a good one. I think a lot of kids either their first ideas or concept of giving is maybe giving to a family member, someone who may be in need, but also giving to a church. It’s a great opportunity for parents through the book – I have little worksheets in the back of the book, to show kids that these are different places and different people that you can give to – family members, your church, some organization that you’re maybe very familiar with. So there are lots of different ways to give. And we give because there’s always going to be someone else who is going to be in need and we can either give money or we can give our time. So that’s how I address the concept of giving.

POC: What got you interested in financial literacy overall, not just in terms of your own kids but as something that needed to be taught? Were you exposed to financial literacy growing up or was it something you learned as an adult?

MG: I was fortunate. So my dad went to NYU, got his MBA there, so I grew up in the northeast, grew up in New York, and I watched Dad come home in the suit and tie and the briefcase and we had conversations about finance and we had conversations about certain things. I feel fairly fortunate in that respect.

But the thing that really did it for me, Patricia, was again I’ve worked in retail banking, I’ve worked in commercial and corporate lending, corporate retirement plans, wealth management, I was in advanced markets, so I’ve been blessed to have worn a lot of different hats in this business. But some of the stuff that was just really mind-blowing to me was working with people that had a lot of money, great incomes, and nice savings but didn’t have a basic understanding of personal finance – the difference between term insurance and permanent insurance; the difference between an IRA or a 401K or a regular brokerage account; why it’s important to have a will, and the difference between a will and a trust.

So, the things that we take for granted in this business, it was almost upsetting that a lot of folks didn’t have this information. And then when you dig a little deeper and you realize that only 21 states, 22 now, I think Rhode Island has jumped on board, require any sort of financial literacy by high school. It’s like, “All right, you know what? A lot more could be done” and I thought I could help.

POC: And as I understand it, they define financial literacy in many, many different ways. In some states that’s an economics course, in some states it means you had to have taken one class by the time you get out of twelfth grade. So even to say 22 states, there is no guarantee really that kids are getting a deep understanding of the tenets of financial literacy and what it means in context to economics.

MG: And let’s dig a little deeper into that. So, when I started down this path of The Four Money Bears, I did some due diligence, did some research, and there is a Cambridge study that shows that a child’s connectivity with money, Patricia, starts by age seven. So, by age seven, a child understands the conversations that Mom and Dad are having about money. The first habit a child picks up is their parents’ spending habit.

So, think about that. If studies show that a child’s connectivity with money starts by age seven but these states aren’t providing financial literacy until high school, typically your senior year in high school, that is a potential ten-year gap where children are either getting no information or misinformation about managing money. Right? So that’s why we have been such advocates of starting the process early in a child’s life and providing that guidance and the baseline of at least what your options are as early as five years old.

POC: How are you getting the message out there?

MG: We have been really fortunate. We published the book a few years ago and it’s on Amazon and I reached out to various states, school boards, about trying to get the book into these public schools. Very challenging. I’ll leave it at that to try to get a book into a public school. But just grassroots, talking to folks, talking to people in the industry.

And then about three, maybe four years ago, eMoney, as some of your folks who are financial advisors or planners may know, they are a large fintech company and they provide financial planning resources, they connected with me and said, “Hey Mac, we like what you’re doing, we’d like to bring The Four Money Bears and the essence of Mac Gardner and the passion to start the conversation early to financial advisors across the country.” And so I started collaborating with them, providing CFPCE [Certified Financial Planner Continuing Education] courses.

And interestingly enough, financial advisors are a great resource for educating folks because a lot of times these CFPs, these advisors, they play in that space on a regular basis and can serve as a resource to their clients and their clients’ children.

POC: Let’s talk a little bit about your company. What is FinLit Tech?

MG: So remember I told you about that challenge of trying to get a book into a public school?

POC: Yes, you did mention that.

MG: How it’s kind of hard? So, what we realized was students, especially elementary school, they are starting to use technology a lot more and teachers are utilizing technology a lot more to get the message across. So we were looking out there and we said, “Okay, there is a bunch of tech that can help you with banking, can help you with lending, can help you with investing. There is a whole lot of tech out there that helps you do stuff with your money but there’s not a lot of tech out there that actually teaches you what to do with money.”

And so our mantra at FinLit Tech is to build a bridge between financial literacy and financial technology and that’s what we do. We are a consulting firm, we work with different fintech companies who are interested in getting more financial education, financial wellness out to the people that use their platforms. And in fact, we entered into a partnership with eMoney this year to help them grow and develop their financial educational and financial literacy platforms.

POC: Can you talk a little bit about some of the other methods of tools you used beyond The Four Bears, maybe aimed more at adults?

MG: Yes, so one of the projects that we’re working on right now is… Motivate Your Money is the name of my first book and we are currently developing a multimedia financial education platform of the same name, Motivate Your Money, where we’re going to be looking at videos, we’re going to have interview with fintech as well as financial services leaders, we’re working with an app developer to look at some gamified options for education.

It’s funny, when folks are playing games, the medicine seems to go down a bit easier when it’s in some sort of gamified platform as opposed to something that’s a bit more rigid and bit more structured. So that is what we’re working at.

We view The Four Money Bears and the app that we’re developing for The Four Money Bears, we view that as the onramp for financial literacy, financial education. You get kids through the process, onto this on ramp of financial education and then we’re building out several platforms for middle school, elementary, and then Motivate Your Money is on the adult side.

POC: What do you think represents a reasonable expectation around a level of financial literacy that people should have let’s say by the time that they do graduate from high school and either go onto college or start some other kind of training and start their way in the adult world?

MG: So The Four Money Bears is the on ramp. The next chapter or the next book we’re working on is The Four Money Bears Go to the Bank. And what we’d like to be able to introduce are a few new characters. So Banker Box Turtle, Lender Lion, Omnibus Owl, and Crypto Cat. Those are the characters where once a child is middle school, high school, getting into college, understanding the banking, understanding the difference between a CD and a money market and savings account, understanding lending, understanding what credit cards can do, understanding the difference between a personal loan vs. a collateralized loan, understanding the difference between APY and APR.

So those I think are foundational bits of knowledge that folks should understand. Because when you’re in college and you’re going to enter in your career or you’re buying a car, you need to understand, okay, how does my credit affect the yield and the rate that I’m going to be paying on this car? How do I go about acquiring a mortgage? So those are things I think that we need to understand sort of baseline.

And then you get to the different levels. There’s Maslow’s hierarchy of financial needs, making sure you’ve got your months of emergency savings and then you start talking about credit and understanding debt and then you start talking about investing and so on and so forth. So that’s Mac with a CFP hat on, just sitting down with Patricia talking about baseline things that folks need to know. I think banking is important and lending and then you talk about investing.

POC: What are the dangers of adults not being financially literate?

MG: Wow, I wish I had the stats on me. As of 2018, it was in the billions. The cost to our society of financial illiteracy is just…it’s steep. I believe in my heart of hearts, Patricia, all we are at the end of our days is a collection of stories, right? We were fortunate to hear stories or have stories speaking in our house about the importance of investing or why you need to have an emergency fund or why all these things. But sadly there are tons of people out there that won’t get those stories.

And if you have so many people in our society that aren’t getting this education or aren’t getting this guidance, it just perpetuates these sad financial states that a lot of folks in communities are in. You know? They are not going to have someone to tell them exactly why it’s important to put money in an IRA or why it’s important to…why owning a fractional share of a stock by age four or five  over the next 20-30 years could not just help you but could potentially help your children down the road. So, I think that’s really the big issue that we have here is a lot of folks aren’t getting this education and they’re not getting these stories and so they are stuck in this perpetual cycle.

POC: And money is for many people an uncomfortable to talk about anyhow. And also, you can’t teach what you yourself don’t know.

MG: Yes, yeah. I mean you hit the nail on the head. If a parent never got this financial literacy education or guidance in school or from anyone else, how can they teach their child. And I think that is why we have gotten so much of a positive response on The Four Money Bears is because you have these parents with these young children and they are looking for guidance they never got themselves. So it’s like, how can they start this conversation? What is a fun and entertaining way to start the conversation about money? And The Four Money Bears is a way to do it.

POC: Can you talk about some of the feedback that you’ve gotten maybe from parents who have used The Four Money Bears to help teach their kids?

MG: Yeah. A couple things that have resonated with me. The first one is when children start to connect with a specific bear because of their own inherent habits with money, you know? Like, “Oh, I’m a spender bear or I’m a saver bear, or I’m a giver bear.” That’s one of the neat things is that connectivity.

The other thing is the stories that I’ve gotten from parents who say, “Mac, thank you for not making this book too much of a kiddie book.” In the little worksheets we put in the back we talk about things to help you invest – what are stocks, what’s a bond, real estate, precious metals.

So that’s some of the really positive feedback that we have gotten from The Four Money Bears is the connectivity with kids, the connectivity with the fact that…I had one parent reach out to me and say…She was getting ready for work, her son came in with the book and said, “Mom, I want to own a Maserati when I get older, so if I want to do that I need to be an investor bear.” And I thought that was the greatest thing. It’s like kids, they understand okay, if I want my money to get really, really big I need to invest. So those are some of the really great stories that we’ve received from folks who read the book, parents as well as their kids.

POC: Well Mac, we’ll look forward to hearing more stories, especially with the new characters that you’re going to be introducing. So, when you get your whole menagerie together we’ll look forward to meeting the rest of them.

MG: For sure, for sure. Just to let you all know, we are working on the children’s app. We are hoping to have that out to the world by the end of this year where we’ll have Bearberry Farms, it’s a platform to allow children to explore entrepreneurialism as well as understand these baselines of what to do with their money as well. And through this digital platform, through this technological platform, we’re going to be able to scale it a lot more than we could through a book.

POC: In the meantime, where can people find Mac and The Four Money Bears and more information?

MG: So like everything, The Four Money Bears and Motivate Your Money are available on Amazon. And you could also find more information at And if you want to find out a bit more about our mission at FinLit Tech to build a bridge between financial literacy and financial technology you can go to

POC: Okay, great. Mac, thanks so much for joining us today on CEO Stories for This is Capitalism.

MG: Thank you so much for having me. The journey continues.

About the Series: Featured stories from the intersection of the free market and entrepreneurial success. Here we speak with leading CEOs, academics, philanthropists and up and comers on their contributions and perspectives on the American economy.

About Patricia O’Connell: Patricia O’Connell serves as Editor in Chief of “This Is Capitalism,” a content site sponsored by Stephens Inc., and is host of the site’s podcast series, “CEO Stories.” Patricia, a former editor at BusinessWeek and a New York Times best-selling author, brings her experience as a journalist and her passion for storytelling to “This Is Capitalism.”