Cash. We all want it, need it, earn it or acquire it somehow. But a different cash— Marissa Cash— wants us to not just have it, but know what to do with it.

The 16-year-old junior at Ursuline Academy of Dallas has been spending her free time building Financial Literacy for American Futures (FLAF), a free, educational resource designed to teach lower income families financial literacy and how to better implement personal finance skills into their everyday lives. 

Cash’s brainchild was born both from financial challenges she and her middle-class family experienced during her childhood and the “culture shock” she felt firsthand after transferring to Ursuline her freshman year. Cash spent many years living overseas in Thailand; her mother is Thai and her American father works for the U.S. Embassy. She and her family moved to Virginia when she was in middle school, but a few years later her father took an embassy job back in Thailand. Feeling it would be better for her to continue her education in the states, her parents returned to Thailand but Cash moved in with her aunt and uncle in Plano.

“With the move and living with my relatives, I was living in a much higher social class. Going to school at Ursuline, specifically, I saw a lot that I didn’t realize before,” Cash says. “It’s like you’re in a different world. I think maybe it’s even harder when you don’t really know why those differences exist. I remember feeling very insecure—in my identity— because was I an outsider, and of a lower class than my peers.”

It was this disparity that prompted Cash to think more critically about personal finance, and she began researching the topic at length during her sophomore year, eventually leading to her creation of FLAF. 

Since then, Cash has recruited her friend and Jesuit student, John Archer, to help.

“A lot of the research I’m doing —  reading articles and economic reports about what financial illiteracy looks like in the U.S., what families struggle with day-to-day, what the most common problems are —  all of that is very time consuming,” Cash says. “I thought it would be a bit easier  if I got someone like John, who is also passionate about poverty and helping those in need financially, to assist me in researching and thinking about what is it that these families need.”

Together, the two are creating a curriculum, lesson plans and resources they hope to publish on their work-in-progress website in the next few months. Cash says the project has “definitely been a learning curve,” filled with extensive research, revision and editing— all completed in her down time as a passion project. 

“Prior to starting this project, I had a certain idea of financial illiteracy in my head,” Cash says, “that the financially illiterate are the poorest of the poor, in a sense. But when I started this project and really started reading about what is it that families struggle with and what it looks like to struggle with money, it became clear to me that there’s really no one image or form that financial illiteracy takes. Anyone can be financially illiterate.”

Arming families and individuals with straightforward, uncomplicated financial information is at the center of FLAF’s mission. One of Cash’s goals with the project is to not only boost discussion around financial literacy, but to provide that information to those who would likely not learn about it otherwise.

“There’s so much information out there; however, not all of it is applicable (to someone’s individual situation) or easy to understand,” Cash says. “With financial education, it’s more about making good decisions than it is about the money itself, and instilling people with the confidence and knowledge to make those decisions.”

In a post-COVID world, Cash and Archer hope to teach FLAF face-to-face and have their curriculum implemented in spaces that provide resources for impoverished families, like shelters. They also plan on developing more child-friendly curriculum and lesson plans, tweaking their existing plans and presenting it to a younger audience in a more interactive and easily digestible way. 

“It’s clear to see from reading the research and information that’s out there about financial classes in the U.S., that there’s not a lot of focus on teaching children money skills,” Cash says. “I think it’s much easier to teach children about financial literacy than it is adults because they’re more impressionable. It’s easier to educate them before they go out (into the world) and they’re an adult, where they have those financial responsibilities.”

As for Cash’s future, she’s definitely seeing dollar signs. After high school she plans on studying either finance or economics and has no plans of giving up her pet project.  

“The reason I created FLAF was because I had an experience firsthand with financial education,” she says, “so it’s a very personal subject to me and something I can see myself doing for the rest of my life.”