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Financial Planning > Behavioral Finance

Financial literacy education in schools is not dead

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When you are the parent of tweens, sometimes it surprises you to hear words other than “I’m still hungry,” or “Can I have $10?” come out of their mouths.

(Sometimes, it’s a surprise when any words come out of their mouth at all!)

I was treated to one of these surprising conversations recently as I watched my son play NBA2K16 on his Xbox while I edited a story about the fiduciary rule. I started reading the story out loud, and I assumed he was tuning me out. Apparently he wasn’t, because as I read a paragraph about retirement accounts, he chimed in with this:

“Mom, I know what an IRA is.”

You do?

“Yeah, we learned about it in social studies. We learned about IRAs, CDs and treasury bonds. Watch me make this shot.”

First of all, my son has never met a dollar he couldn’t spend in 10 seconds flat. I’m not sure actual currency has ever existed inside his piggy bank or wallet. So the fact that any concept related to saving money made it to his long-term memory was a pleasant surprise. Second, I don’t even understand treasury bonds that well, so I was duly impressed.

Third and maybe most importantly, this conversation (with the child who regularly forgets what day it is) sparked my interest. Exactly how much financial literacy is part of the curriculum in schools today?

I’ve seen all kinds of reports that decry the lack of education about personal finance in early education and call for increased emphasis on teaching children about managing and saving their money. I’m not familiar with how much financial literacy is required as part of various school district curricula, but I’ve been impressed so far with some of the ways my kids have been exposed to financial topics.

When my boys were in fifth grade, for instance, their entire class participated in a financial education unit focused on teaching business, economics and free enterprise by creating a town as a class project. The students had to apply for a job by creating a resume, getting letters of recommendation and interviewing with adult volunteers. They had to elect a mayor from four candidates who campaigned, made posters and gave speeches. They had to learn about income, including paying taxes, and how to balance a checkbook. And they had to learn how to price the products and services their businesses would sell based on supply and demand.

The unit culminated in a one-day field trip to Young AmeriTowne in Denver where they put their new skills into action. I had the privilege and pleasure of participating as an adult volunteer on their field trip (and serving as the town’s newspaper editor, naturally.) It was a wonderful experience for the kids. They enjoyed playing various roles — the policeman (who earned his paycheck by writing tickets to townspeople caught running instead of walking), the DJ (who played music and read paid advertisements for town businesses over the loudspeaker), the energy company manager (who fixed ‘random’ power outages at businesses) and many other jobs. On their two breaks during the day, the kids could go buy products from the other businesses (the most popular were snacks at the grocery store and cardboard briefcases the box company employees built). After their field trip, the students had to turn in their checkbooks to demonstrate what they learned about living within their means.

Full disclosure, two of my boys lived meticulously within their means, and one purposely overdrew his checking account because, duh, it wasn’t real.

Just a short year later, my son is now explaining treasury bonds to me while simultaneously playing a virtual game of basketball in the ‘boy cave’ that I’m sometimes allowed to visit. His brother wandered in, and both told me about the financial unit they had just completed.

One of the things they both loved is that they got to name the days of the week after financial concepts. Money Monday, Taxes Tuesday and Thursday, Financial Friday. Apparently they couldn’t come up with a W word to go with Wednesday.

Then they each were assigned financial terms to look up and explain to the class.

“I chose the questions ‘What is an IRA?’ and ‘What is better between a savings account and a certificate of deposit?’ An IRA, an individual retirement account, is an account that you can put money into that you can then take out when you are retired.”

Not too shabby. And what about the second question?

“I said savings accounts are better, because you can take out money whenever you want, and you can put unlimited money in. As for a CD, you can only take the money out when the CD is done.”

His brother didn’t miss a chance to correct him.

“Technically you can take the money out, but you ruin it because you have to pay fine.”

I asked him what he learned about.

“We learned about emergency funds. An emergency fund is an account you make so you have money if something that affects your life breaks or is damaged and has to be replaced. And we learned about taxes. Taxes are a bill you have to pay that goes to the government. Taxes suck.”

This is a pretty refreshing line of conversation coming from children who argue if one or the other is breathing too loud and spend inordinate amounts of time watching and giggling over videos like “I know a song that gets on everybody’s nerves.” Not surprisingly, their interest in discussing various savings vehicles and financial concepts began to wane quicker than my fascination with their knowledge did.

“Mom, are you actually writing about him playing video games for your magazine?”

“No, she’s going to write about us talking about treasury bonds.”

Kind of.

I reached out to their social studies teacher, Barbara Eulenstein, to find out more about the financial education unit she taught. In Colorado, economics is one of four social studies focus areas required for sixth graders along with geography, civics and history. The curriculum states that students must understand the difference between saving and investing and how each can improve financial wellbeing, the advantages and disadvantages of saving for short- and medium-term goals, the importance of an emergency fund, and that saving is a prerequisite to investing.

Eulenstein said her students showed interest in how the financial world works. They asked questions about credit cards, interest and mortgages. Instead of lecturing the students, Eulenstein engaged them in different ways to help them learn these concepts, including studying real-world advertisements, playing board games, researching websites of banks and financial institutions, using online tools and watching videos. The students each studied different bank products and worked together as a class to understand more challenging financial topics.

“It is very clear from what I have read in the news and from personal conversations that people need to know more about managing money,” said Eulenstein. “I wanted my students to learn four things about managing their money: (1) know the difference between debit and credit cards, (2) pay off credit card bills each month to a zero balance, which means they monitor their purchases on the credit card each month, (3) avoid bank fees (i.e., overdrafts, ATM fees), and (4) know how to save money and why that is important. I thought if they were aware of these four things at age 12, then they would be prepared when these became parts of their lives.”

So is there a dearth of financial literacy education in our schools today? I don’t know the answer for sure, but anecdotal evidence from the boy cave in my house suggests there are reasons to be optimistic.

See also:

Why schools should teach our youth retirement planning

Young adults choose “money management” as most beneficial course

LIMRA: Innovative approaches to financial literacy

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