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A view of a money shower inside the pop-up Stacks House. Steven Byeon/Marketplace

Can a pop-up teach women about financial literacy?

Janet Nguyen May 7, 2019
A view of a money shower inside the pop-up Stacks House. Steven Byeon/Marketplace

If you’re frustrated about your car payments or student loans, a new pop-up in downtown Los Angeles gives you the chance to vent your rage.

Stacks House — a pop-up that promotes women’s financial literacy — features an area called the “Debt Boxing Gym” where attendees can don a pair of boxing gloves and hit a series of obstacles that represent different types of debt or their “deadbeat friends” (“71% have loaned friends money and have yet to be paid back,” says the print on one bag.)  

It’s one of the latest offerings in the “pop-up” genre, whose characteristics usually include Instagram-ready backdrops, interactive activities and a healthy dose of pastel.

Predecessors include the Museum of Ice Cream, Candytopia and the Color Factory, but the founders of Stacks House are calling this one a “pop-up with a purpose.”

Got car payments? You can let them know how you feel. (Steven Byeon/Marketplace)

“We thought, ‘Let’s lean in to that already existing cultural excitement around pop-ups , but design it around money, and in particular, financial feminism,’” said Farnoosh Torabi, a personal finance expert who hosts the podcast “So Money” and the co-founder of She Stacks, the startup that developed the pop-up. (Torabi defines “financial feminism” as believing that women deserve income equality and access to financial literacy.)

Donald Trump’s presidential win in 2016 was a catalyst for creating She Stacks, whose other co-founders include Patience Ramsey and Kindra Meyer, a former Hillary Clinton fundraiser.

“I just had sort of a breakthrough right after the election that really women were never going to truly have equality until we had equal power,” Meyer said. “And to me, immediately, I just thought money is power.”

And the pop-up serves as an ode to money, featuring showers lined with dangling cash and an infinity mirror where neon bills cover the floor and ceiling. Once you move out of the “Debt Boxing Gym,” you’ll encounter the “Retirement Rodeo,” where you can ride a mechanical piggy bank; the “Stacks Salon,” which provides advice on doing a side gig; and the “Gold Bar,” where you can unwind with alcohol.

In the “Retirement Rodeo” room, you’ll find money-saving messages like “fewer green juices” and “cook more” — the kind of advice focused on personal responsibility that has been doled out to millennials for years

A changing industry

But the personal finance industry is at a crossroads at the moment. With growing wealth inequality and the burdens of student debt, many are starting to resent the idea that you can chip away at a problem that’s structural by just buying fewer cups of coffee.

It’s the reason why companies like Chase will get eviscerated on Twitter for suggesting you should eat food in your fridge and avoid ordering another cab, or that you should have saved twice your salary for retirement by the time you’re 35.

When asked if she thinks the personal finance industry needs to change, Torabi said advice was a bit more cookie-cutter for past generations because life was a bit more predictable.

“Now life is not predictable, necessarily. People aren’t necessarily retiring at 60 or 65. We’re continuing to work. We’re living longer. That’s good news,” Torabi said. “So all along the way, I think that it would behoove advisers and the financial industry and everybody who has a stake in this to give the advice that is more catered to the individual.”

Guests at Stacks House can ride a mechanical piggy bank. (Steven Byeon/Marketplace)

Throughout the pop-up, walls in different rooms are lined with advice that’s supposed to be both practical (“Build a diversified portfolio”) and inspirational (“When you make bold money moves, something magical happens. You get what you really want”).

Kiosks with surveys and quizzes are sprinkled throughout each room, asking you about the type of debt you have or whether you know the earliest age you can start collecting Social Security benefits.

This data collection is all in service of a larger goal: helping She Stacks, the parent company, figure out the types of products and tools it should develop. Torabi said that could take the form of a financial app or a newsletter.

The audience

Some of the attendees said the pop-up gave them helpful reminders about how they could make  money.

Emilie Ramos, 22, who’s majoring in art at East Los Angeles College, said the Stacks House visit encouraged her to start using her creative talents to design clothing and sell it online.

“There’s just fun activities, and past the fun, there’s a serious message behind it,” Ramos noted. “And I feel like that lures you in and it really sticks with you because of that.”

Emilie Ramos inside of Stack House’s Debt Boxing Gym. (Courtesy of Emilie Ramos)

She came with her boyfriend Sean Garcia, 25, who said he picked up little bits of trivia during the visit.

“I mean, I learned that from one of the things, the little questionnaire booth, that you start claiming Social Security when you’re 62. I thought that was interesting,” Garcia said.

“You didn’t know that?” Ramos chimed in.

“I didn’t know that,” he said.

“I did, because my dad is 62,” Ramos said, laughing.

Anna Zeman, 31, another attendee, enjoyed the pop-up’s design and called it a “really smart use of the space.” She also praised its mission of getting more women to talk frankly about their finances and removing some of the “shame and scariness” surrounding financial planning.

However, she didn’t think Stack House’s price tag of $38 (which is on par with other pop-ups) was worth it.

“There’s just not enough to do, and it’s not long enough to be that expensive,” Zeman said.

Marcella Rodriguez and Carmin Hermosillo, friends who consider themselves pretty financially literate, were excited to check out the pop-up.

“Three to four years ago, I wouldn’t have thought that financial literacy was going to have a pop-up shop, let alone artistry,” Hermosillo said. “I wanted to kind of be part of this new movement that I feel is going on, that a lot of people are taking financial literacy seriously.”

Friends Marcella Rodriguez, left, and Carmin Hermosillo at Stacks House. (Janet Nguyen/Marketplace)

Rodriguez, 32, said she was curious to see how informative it would be — or whether it’d be just about getting a good photo for your Instagram.

The verdict: “Obviously it’s supposed to be fun and lighthearted, but I think they still mixed in some of that education piece, which was nice to see,” she said.

However, while both said they enjoyed their experience and would recommend it to others, they’re looking to learn more advanced ideas.  

“I think that’s something that in financial education, in general, is kind of lacking. Like, beyond the basics of 101 … what does financial literacy 201 look like?” Rodriguez said.  

After Los Angeles, Torabi said the team wants to open the pop-up in more inland areas like Austin, Detroit and Minneapolis so they can reach a broader demographic.

“We’ve sort of reached a financial literacy peak, if you will, as far as all the content that’s out there — which is really inspiring and great,” Torabi said. “But we felt that what could really help move the needle even further was providing an experience.”

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