Washington Post

Kids Get Money-Smart
New Programs Are Helping Parents Prepare Children for Responsibility

Margaret Webb Pressler, April 15, 2007

Tina Vance, a Chantilly stay-at-home mother of four, has been working hard at giving her family a financial education. She makes the kids, ages 4 to 14, contribute 10 percent of their allowances to savings and charity and she includes them in discussions of household finances. Vance heard nothing from her own parents about money or their financial situation, but she laid it all out for her children.

She used Monopoly money.

"I put a pile on the table equal to one month of my husband's salary. I also got out the cable bill, the phone bill, the Giant receipts, everything we had paid for that month," she said. "We went around the table, and each kid took a turn paying a bill. After all the bills were paid, there wasn't much left."

At a time when many Americans are unwise with their money -- piling up debt, overspending on credit cards, saving too little and taking on risky mortgages -- there is a growing awareness that children need to be taught what their parents don't know. If kids learn more about money, the thinking goes, they won't make the same mistakes.

It's not only parents who are worried about the temptations young people face -- it's also the financial institutions that will need those children as customers in the future. Banks, investment firms and credit unions are spending an increasing amount of time and money on programs and Web sites that teach kids the ABCs of money management. Both A.G. Edwards and Wells Fargo have recently unveiled online games that allow kids to role play and learn about personal finance and banking.

"They have a cradle-to-grave marketing strategy," said Eli Jones, a marketing professor at the University of Houston and an industry consultant. "If they can create responsible spending and investing at an early age, then they're building a customer for life."

Money-management education is also taking off in the nonprofit realm, as child-focused organizations increasingly stress the importance of financial responsibility. And then there is the growing stream of money-wise DVDs, toys and books -- some aimed at youngsters just out of diapers.

"Most kids, all they know is spending," said Lori Mackey, founder of Prosperity4Kids, which created and sells a system for parents to teach children about saving and investing. "We have to help them understand that when you invest your money, it will be there in the future for you, and it will grow into huge amounts of money. And when you tell them that, they get all excited."

Organized Instruction

Many parents know they need to do more to impart financial wisdom to their kids but want some help from outside organizations, such as banks or nonprofit groups.

Islyn Nieves of Dumfries has been trying to turn her financial mistakes into an advantage for her 13-year-old son, Juan. Whenever he gets his allowance from his father, she explains to him the folly of blowing it on comic books or Yu-Gi-Oh! cards. But she wants to do more. Nieves, who is in the Army Reserve, is thinking of getting her son a debit card through USAA to track his allowance and give him a better understanding of what the card means.

"He thinks, 'I have a credit card, so I have money,' " she said. "I'm trying to explain to him that it's not the same thing."

Vance was thrilled when her oldest child, Maddie, participated in a pilot program at school that gave her class 25 hours of intensive personal finance and budgeting instruction. Called Finance Park, the program was created by Junior Achievement, a nonprofit organization dedicated to training kids for professional success. In recent years, JA has been focusing more on teaching kids how to be financial successes. Its Finance Park model includes hands-on learning through role playing of real-life scenarios, along with classroom lessons.

There are six permanent Finance Park facilities nationwide, according to Edward J. Grenier, chief executive of Junior Achievement of the National Capital Area. Maddie's class did its instruction at a new mobile Finance Park, built in two specially outfitted trailers (paid for by Capital One) and designed to travel.

Each student was assigned a scenario -- such as being an unmarried, 32-year-old mother earning $34,000 a year -- and had to budget income to cover housing, food, insurance, transportation, child care and, if possible, entertainment. Maddie, like most of the students in the day-long exercise, left with a greater appreciation of her parents -- and a slight fear of growing up.

"It was really hard to pick and choose what you spend your money on," she said. "Now I realize what they have to do in real life."

That doesn't always make it easier to resist the $50 jacket from the popular teen store Hollister, she said, but the JA program has made her think harder about such purchases, especially when her mother questions her spending decisions. It takes vigilance to reinforce those lessons.

"I'll definitely think about it -- if I buy this, I won't be able to buy that," Maddie said. "But sometimes, I don't know, something comes over me and I just really want to buy something."

A Way for Teens

The JA pilot program was tested on eighth-graders at Rocky Run Middle School in Chantilly last fall in part because of the interest of Jack Dale, superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools. He has made it a priority to get more financial education into the county's middle schools.

"Our school board, this past spring, was wrestling with the very issue of what should we expect of all our kids when they graduate," Dale said. "At 40 or 50 different public hearings, they repeatedly heard, 'we need to ensure that our kids have financial literacy and citizenship skills.' "

The JA experiment helped officials think differently about how to approach financial education. Financial literacy lessons are currently embedded in courses such as social studies and math. "What we realized is we'll be more effective if we pull them out of those content areas and teach them in a more project-based approach," he said.

The Fairfax school system will roll out a program for teaching financial literacy to middle-schoolers over the next two years, joining a growing number of other systems.

Only nine states have personal finance instruction as a high-school graduation requirement, but last year, seven more introduced legislation to require some kind of money management instruction in public schools, according to the National Association of State Boards of Education.

NASBE formed a commission last year to assess the need for such education in schools and concluded that financial literacy and investor education should be a "basic feature" of K-12 programs.

"The evidence shows that youth financial education can make a difference," the commission wrote. "Individuals graduating from high schools in states that mandate personal finance education courses have higher savings rates and net worth as a percentage of earnings than those who graduate from schools in states without such a mandate."

Teachable Moments

It's clear the need is there. The JumpStart Coalition, a nonprofit group that promotes financial literacy in students and is funded by a who's-who list of financial services giants, administers a survey of personal finance knowledge among high schoolers. In the 2005-06 academic year, the average score was 52.4 percent, up marginally from the year before but down from 57.3 percent 10 years ago.

Part of the problem is that parents don't know what to teach their kids and often don't want to talk about money because they don't think they're good role models.

The financial services industry sees parents' desire to educate their kids as a chance to educate both generations. "You can learn it, you can model behavior, you can talk about it, you can learn with your child," said Loretta Abrams, vice president of consumer advocacy for the financial services firm HSBC.

Some experts question whether financial institutions use youth education as a public relations move, to protect themselves from criticism for encouraging kids to spend, especially with credit cards. Visa, for example, has partnered with Hasbro to introduce a new version of the Game of Life board game. It comes not with play money but with a Visa card for swiping.

"The lesson and the moral for parents to be concerned about is unless these skills are consistently reinforced with a positive message, they'll be lost," said Robert D. Manning, a finance professor at Rochester Institute of Technology and author of "Credit Card Nation." Some of the education efforts by banks are "vastly under-funded," he said. "The banks know this financial education stuff is going to be background noise when [kids grow up and] it comes time to party with your friends," he said.

The marketing of personal finance to kids is becoming big business. Sam Renick was a financial consultant before creating a rabbit character, Sammy the Saver, aimed at teaching elementary-school kids about money. He does performances for huge audiences and sells products on his Web site, http://www.itsahabit.com.

You can also buy your child a toy ATM to keep precise track of allowance deposits (and withdrawals), or maybe settle for one of any number of piggy banks that have slots for saving, spending and giving.

If your daughter is into American Girl, she can read "A Smart Girl's Guide to Money." If you want to teach her about investing, there's the book by Oneshare.com, a Web site that sells single shares of stock, called "Stock Matters: An Introduction to Stock and Ownership."

Got toddlers? They can watch a new DVD aimed at 2- to 6-year-olds called "The Money Mammals: Saving Money Is Fun."

Teachable moments start early, said Dan Mica, president of the Credit Union National Association. For the past year, the group has been promoting a program called "Thrive by Five" aimed at teaching preschoolers about spending and saving. "You're behind the curve if you start trying to teach your kids about finances when they're teenagers or young adults," he said. "You've got to start teaching an awful lot about this when they're younger."

For any parent facing the return of a college student who couldn't make it in the real world, those are depressing words. And not everyone agrees. "It's never too late -- I didn't learn until I was in my 30s," said Mackey of Prosperity4Kids.

But she and others agree that it's easier to get younger kids to back off on spending and learn to save. Mackey pushed her own kids, now 11 and 13, and once they saw their savings grow, they were hooked. It's been good not only for their financial futures but also for their self esteem because they're not comparing themselves with others based on who has which gadget or expensive outfit.

"They're not obsessed with money anymore," she said. "They know how powerful it can be for them."


This story ran on Washington Post on April 15, 2007.