Many American teenagers spend an enormous amount of time and energy to excel in school, master a sport or an instrument, and prepare for the SATs to gain entrance into the college of their choice. During college they prepare assiduously to obtain their dream job by finding summer positions and crafting internships to build their resumes. The coddling of parents and the protective college community eventually gives way to the long sought-after independence.
But how prepared are these graduates to cope with the practical realities of adult daily living or to develop a sustainable personal future? We do not want kids to jump into deep water without swimming lessons or drive a car with no instruction. Yet we expect newly minted young adults to navigate the complexities of life in the “real world” without a map or compass. Left to acquire the tools they need in a “hit or miss” fashion, their early forays can be needlessly littered with obstacles and have unintended consequences. A young adult’s sustainable future is best assured with education focused on the requisite daily life skills.
The lack of concerted attempts to teach financial literacy, with the resulting repercussions, is an illustrative example. Youths are commonly taught about money by means of an allowance or earning money for chores, and then determining how much to spend and how much to save. However, they also need to learn to set spending goals by developing the ability to differentiate between discretionary wants and essential needs, as well as internalizing the value of budgeting. This evaluation of spending, saving, and eventually borrowing will impact their FICO score, and thus their ability to obtain the necessary credit in order to prosper.
The childhood experience of saving an allowance in a piggy bank can easily evolve into having a savings account and passbook at a commercial bank. This not only teaches the value of compound interest, but also introduces youngsters to an array of banking services. Similarly, spending and saving can be supplemented with donating and investing, even at a young age, to instill critical lifelong habits.
Experiencing the practical application of financial information in a real situation always makes a greater impression than learning about the abstract concept from a book. Quotidian activities could be used to explore financial matters and choices. For example, when kids visit a grocery store and notice the same product comes in different sizes and prices, the seeds will be planted for an understanding of unit pricing and volume discounts. Appreciating why there is a cost differential between a celebrity-endorsed brand name product versus its generic, equally serviceable counterpart encourages savvy consumption, highlighting the difference between more savings or less. Setting aside a dollar a week to support a child in another country teaches compassion, and educates the child about the standards of living around the world and the differences in the relative value of money.
To reinforce educational training, adding concept reinforcement activities to a curriculum is beneficial. For example, engage students in interactive discussions, play a competitive game of best money management tips or a financial literacy-focused Jeopardy, or role-play to demonstrate the impact of poor versus good financial decisions. These efforts can make the dry information more meaningful and also provide an opportunity to actively practice the skills, making learning more tangible. In addition, examples and case studies should relate to the youngsters’ daily realities and interests.
According to Vince Shorb, CEO, National Financial Educators Council, “college graduates spent 16 years gaining skills that will help them command a higher salary; yet little or no time is spent helping them save, invest and grow their money.” There is a need to rebalance priorities and recognize that earnings have diminished value if they are not managed or invested in a responsible manner with an eye towards future growth.
Instead of being overwhelmed and confused, and thus risking prosperity, young adults need to be empowered to master their own financial universe. Such knowledge enables them to develop the confidence to employ smart money management skills and make better choices, thereby avoiding costly mistakes while becoming better prepared to handle their future financial health. With these goals in mind, it is clear that we are not starting financial education early enough to make a difference in our children’s futures.
The goal of creating a life of personal financial sustainability is as important as getting into college and advancing professionally. A lack of financial intelligence impacts not only the individual’s personal life and financial security in retirement, but potentially produces negative ramifications for the economy and society in terms of low savings rates, limited resources, and inequality.
Susan Winston holds an MBA and an MA in child psychology. As an Independent Consultant, she has extensive experience working with youth and developing targeted programs, including the curriculum for High Water Women’s Personal Finance Program for Community College Students and Women in Transition to Jobs. Formerly, Susan held positions at New York Times Productions, Steuben Glass, Newsweek and Citibank.