“When I was born, my parents actually had to sell the hubcaps off the car just to buy me diapers and that’s how limited their understanding of how to manage money was at that point in time,” says Allison Ball, Treasurer of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
Ball’s parents were upstanding citizens, graduates of Asbury University, a Christian liberal arts college in Kentucky, who believed in the power of education. Allison’s father is Ron Ball, who had served as an assistant minister at a Southern Baptist megachurch in suburban Atlanta before returning to his native Kentucky to launch an evangelistic association. He is author of several books and is said to be a magnetic speaker. Allison’s mother is Amy Ball, a former school teacher.
Yet the Balls were babes in the wood when it came to finances until a man Allison describes as “a blue-collar millionaire” took them under his wing and insisted they master the skill of financial planning. He was Dexter Yager, a network marketing genius who became a millionaire running the most successful Amway distributorship in the world. Yager was a political player, a collector of expensive cars, and a believer in free enterprise. The Balls met Yager through mutual friends in Atlanta, when Ron was studying at Emory. As a result of Yager’s taking an interest in them, the Balls gained financial skills. Yager held rallies and recorded messages about realizing the dreams of prosperity.
“He died about two years ago and is probably the finest man I’ve ever known,” says Ball of Yager, whom she describes as a “devout Christian with a gift for mentoring.”
He emphasized the nuts and bolts,” Ball recalls “He was very practical and used common sense. I remember as a small child, my dad coming back from visiting Dexter and being excited in telling us things that he had learned about budgeting. Even just as simple as putting a cardboard shoe box on the table and that’s where your bills go so you don’t lose them.”
Ball has added another dimension to the treasurer’s office—helping Kentuckians acquire financial literacy.
A state treasurer acts as sort of the Chief Financial Officer of the state—it’s a nuts-and-bolts job, making sure the state’s funds are spent as they are supposed to be. Since Ball was elected Kentucky State Treasurer (first in 2015 and again in 2019), however, she has added another emphasis—helping Kentuckians gain financial literacy. You might say that she’d like to do for other families what Dexter Yager did for hers.
She is especially proud of a savings and investment program for people with disabilities called STABLE Kentucky. Launching STABLE Kentucky required Ball to seek a change in the law to allow citizens with disabilities to save and invest without losing assistance. “STABLE Kentucky is a real game changer if you belong to this community,” says Ball. “Without the change in the law that allowed me to create these accounts, you’re only allowed to save up to $2,000 at a time without jeopardizing your benefits. But now if you have a STABLE Kentucky Account, it allows you to save $15,000 a year without it affecting your benefits. And if you’re employed you can save between $12,000 and $13,000 more dollars. So, it’s tremendous for people who fall into this category because they really have more control of their lives.”
Ball also became concerned about financial literacy of young Kentuckians. “During my first term as Treasurer, I was talking to a group of high school seniors and it was the entire graduating class at this small county in eastern Kentucky,” says Ball. “I asked them about credit cards. Do you have a credit card? Some of them were over the age of 18 and already had credit cards. And I asked them, okay, well, what’s the interest in your card? Have you figured out what you need to make sure you’re paying, and you don’t pay more than you really owe because of interest? I realized as I was talking to them that not a single student really had a concept of what interest is. I don’t even think they were aware of it on their credit cards. So, we took a few moments and went over that, and I actually had them even explain it back to me, just to make sure they got it. And I remember leaving that class that day thinking, oh my goodness, this is something that really needs to be addressed.”
Impressed by the need to start early, Ball also established the Financial Empowerment Commission, which encourages and provides tools for teaching financial literacy in schools. “The Commission doesn’t use taxpayer dollars,” Ball is quick to add, “but it provides resources to schools and other groups that are teaching financial literacy – because the mandate was an unfunded mandate – so we had to figure out a creative way, a conservative way, to be able to provide resources for people. So, this allowed me to partner with the private sector to pull them in because there’s many people in the financial institution world and other areas who are interested in helping people develop these skills. We just need to be a vehicle to do it.” The Kentucky Financial Empowerment Database, also a Ball brainchild, makes available financial literacy resources.
Recently, for example, Ball hosted a “Smart Women Smart Money” virtual conference that featured journalist and author Mary Katharine Ham as keynote speaker. IWF’s Carrie Sheffield also spoke. “It grew out of an idea a former state treasurer from Idaho, Ron Crane, had,” says Ball. “He told me for years about how great it is to spend some time teaching financial literacy principles to groups of women. Women, in particular, often love going to conferences that are just women-focused.”
Ball’s roots in Kentucky’s Floyd County area go back to the 1790s.
In a way, Ball’s life prepared her to become a national leader in the movement for financial literacy. She grew up in Prestonsburg, Ky., in Floyd County, where her family has been since the 1790s. “It’s the Hatfield and McCoy area,” Ball says, laughing. “The coal fields of Eastern Kentucky. So, deep in the hollers. Deep in the mountains. I’m related to about half the county because if you’re in those mountains, you’ve probably been there a long time. And it always made it interesting, growing up trying to find someone to date because you had to figure how closely related you are in the area. But I just love it. It’s a beautiful place, a place rich in family history, community, traditions. It’s an area of very independent, strong people, particularly very independent strong women. My Nanny, my grandmother, is 90 years old this year and is one of the strongest, most interesting, and wonderful people that I know in my life and she’s pretty indicative of many of the women in Eastern Kentucky. A lot of strong women in those mountains.”
Because of their experience of learning about managing their finances with the help Dexter Yager, the Balls were eager for their daughter to acquire the same skills. When she tended to spend her allowance with alarming abandon, her parents decreed that Allison would have to earn money instead having it simply given to her. That turned out to be a great idea.
“I probably was becoming a little socialist,” Ball recalls. “When I realized my parents were not going to relent, I decided that, and if I was going to be able to buy any of the things that I wanted to buy, I was going to have to figure out some way to earn some money. So, at that point I started my first business. I started Positive Pencils International. So, I was thinking really big from the get-go. And I designed pencils that had little positive things on them, like “believe in yourself,” “you can do it,” “I’m a winner.” And I sold them for 25 cents each or four for a dollar. So, a great deal. And I remember going to anyone I could the first week I started selling my pencils and I would tell them, 25 cents each or four for a dollar, because they usually would buy at least a dollar’s worth, if I said that. My customers were kids my age, neighbors, family members, anybody I could sell to. And of course, this was pre-social media. So, these were face-to-face conversations with people to get them to buy pencils. And I calculated how much I had to pay back for my pencils. My parents had spotted me some money to be able to invest in it. So, I had to pay them back for the pencils I bought. And I realized that, after paying them back, I had made $200 my first week.”
She continues, “It was a huge eye-opening experience for me. It had a major impact that still is a part of my life. And I realized that my parents were right, I could do so much more if I was doing it myself. I really did begin to understand the value of money because suddenly everything I bought was calculated in terms of 25 cents. I knew how many pencils it cost to buy a video game. And it was a lot of pencils. So, I really did understand that, but I also learned free enterprise, and personal responsibility, and hard work, which were probably the real things my parents were hoping that I would learn. They wanted me to learn money management, of course, but they were also hoping that I would learn some of these deeper bigger principles and I did. So, I kept my pencil business until I went to college. It was a thriving business. I grew it and developed it. When I went to college, I then sold it to my younger brother. So, it existed for a while even after me.”
Allison went to Georgetown College, set on a beautiful campus in historic Georgetown, Ky., and the first Baptist College west of the Appalachian Mountains (also famous for producing more than its share of Rhodes Scholars). Allison transferred to Liberty College, for which her father was doing some work. She graduated from the law school of the University of Kentucky, where she was president of the Federalist Society.
She and a friend established a legal practice specializing in bankruptcy.
“That was actually a tremendous capping of my education,” Ball says, “because I had all these great free market principles that I learned, free enterprise principles and personal responsibility growing up, but I really began just to develop a deep appreciation for the Constitution and our structure of government and federalism through my law school experience. As sometimes happens to some people, I became more conservative and more deeply rooted in those founding principles while I was in law school because I began to think about them so deeply, and of course being a part of the Federalist Society was a tremendous way to pursue ideas and try to reach truth.”
After law school, Ball clerked for awhile in Lexington, but, when an opportunity opened up in eastern Kentucky, she jumped at the chance to go home. She was an assistant county attorney in Floyd County for four years. Afterwards, Ball and an old friend from law school decided to open a law practice, which was tailor-made for learning more about financial literacy.
“My buddy Noah Friend and I taught ourselves bankruptcy law,” Ball says. “And we opened up a bankruptcy practice in Pikeville, Kentucky, which is a neighboring town. And we did that for a number of years, which I really can see now was, I believe, just God kind of piecing things together that I would need for later on in my life, because it really taught me a lot about how to solve financial problems.”
What are some of the things that can lead a person to bankruptcy?
“Well, sometimes it’s just as simple as budgeting,” replies Ball. “A lot of times it’s just as simple as that. Thinking about consequences when it comes to your money. Planning long term. And a lot of times we’d have clients who either had health issues, or they’d lost a job. It’s something that really was unanticipated. They would have been fine but for some unanticipated thing. But there are ways to plan and prepare for those kinds of experiences and ways to be able to stretch dollars. So, a bankruptcy practice was just a great experience for me to realize what real people go through. And it pushed me to want to help people more in that area.”
It also led to her interest in public office. She explains, “there was an open seat for Treasurer, and it had been an underutilized position, I felt, for a long time. I had never run for anything before, except for student government while I was in law school, so, my first foray into elected office was to run for a statewide office in 120 counties in Kentucky. And, you know, I think being young was actually an asset because I didn’t have a lot to lose. I was dating somebody, but we weren’t married yet, and I didn’t have a lot of responsibilities at home. I was able to save my money to make sure that I could pay for my own expenses while running for office.”
Ball not only won but got the most votes of any other candidate on the ballot in both 2015, when she was elected, and 2019, when she was re-elected. She also got married. Her husband is Dr. Asa James Swan. When their son, Levi, was born, Ball became the first Kentucky constitutional officer to give birth while in office. She was also the youngest female elected statewide official in the U. S. Asa has served as chief of staff of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, was the first Chief Leadership Officer for the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and now heads a business devoted to developing leadership qualities.
Because of term limits, Ball cannot serve a third term as Treasurer. She admits that she would like to remain an elected official and is considering options. Add her name to the list of Republican women you’ll be hearing from in the future.