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Planting seeds of financial literacy

“Maybe my students won’t use it today. It might be 5 or 10 years down the road when they are buying a car or a house and they’ll say, ‘Hey, I remember something about that.’” —Sarah Campbell, School District of Wisconsin Dells

your$ magazine Summer 2009When Sarah Campbell takes her 3-year-old to the grocery store, she makes a point of paying in cash. Sarah wants her daughter to experience the trading of money for goods. She feels that the physical transaction is an important part of understanding how to manage your money. “Our concept of money is so abstract now. We pay for things without ever actually seeing the money. Our paychecks are automatically deposited, our bills are automatically paid, we swipe a card to pay for purchases.”

Sarah teaches personal finance to high school students in Wisconsin Dells. She just completed her second year. Her first year was a struggle. “I was teaching content. Straight out of the textbook. The kids didn’t care. I knew it was important information, but I didn’t know how to present the information so they recognized how important it was for them.”

Aha!
Last summer—almost on a whim—Sarah signed up for several courses offered by the National Institute for Financial and Economic Literacy (the Institute). “I was there for one day and thought, ‘Oh my gosh. This is the most important thing ever. I can’t believe I almost missed it.’”

Her “aha” moment was when her instructor asked the class to think about their earliest memory of shopping with their mom. “I remember sitting in the cart at the checkout and watching my mom count out cash or write a check.” The instructor then asked them to think about the experience of their students. “It’s very different now. My students have grown up swiping cards. They don’t see the money.”

Sarah CampbellSarah is only 28 years old, a young teacher, but she recognizes how much things have changed since she was in that shopping cart and the impact new technologies have on student perceptions of and experiences with money.

Her experience at the Institute paid off with great ideas for presenting financial concepts as well as resources for free materials and access to online tools.

Dave Mancl, Director of the Office of Financial Literacy, oversees the Institute along with other state programs such as MoneySmart Week® Wisconsin. He says that the program immerses teachers in personal finance content so they are better prepared in the classroom. “Our intent is to provide them with materials, resources, and curriculum that can be implemented easily, right away.” Surveys of past participants, according to Mancl, indicate that over 80% do implement what they’ve learned in the fall following the coursework.

Get personal
Sarah felt better about her approach this year in her class. “You have to make it personal.” Students start out tracking their expenses with a spender’s log, like a dieters notebook. You can tell she loves it when something sticks. “One student said, ‘Ms. Campbell, Starbucks cost me $20 this week. That’s a twenty dollar bill!’ It’s a real eye opener for them.”

From there, students develop short-term goals and build a budget to try to reach the goals.

“We talk about long-term goals such as retirement, but they think I’m crazy. I tell them, ‘You just have to put a couple thousand away for 10 years and look at what you’ll have. Look at the numbers.’ But they are all about the here and now.”

The personal finance class runs just nine weeks. “That’s not a lot of time.”

Sarah is planting seeds. Hoping something will germinate. She has high hopes that her students will leave her class with at least one piece of useful information. “Maybe they won’t use it today. It might be five or 10 years down the road when they are buying a car or a house and they’ll say, ‘Hey, I remember something about that.’ ”

The big question
The message Sarah sees as superceding all others is, ‘take responsibility for your own financial position.’ “I tell my students, ‘It’s up to you to determine what you want your life to be like and how you are going to make it happen. No one else can do that for you.’ In my mind, the big question is, ‘Where do you fit into the local community economy? When you are 18 or 21, how will you be responsible for yourself financially?’”

It’s a message we could take on the road. And in a way, that’s just what the Institute wants to happen. “Those that attend the Institute become ambassadors for financial literacy,” says Mancl. “They take what they’ve learned back to their communities and districts. They talk to their colleagues, their administrators. They advocate for systemic changes that promote financial literacy.”

Generally, personal finance credits are not required for graduation. “We hope to change that,” says Mancl. In fact, the goal, he says, is to integrate financial education at all grade levels. “Our financial system has evolved. It’s more complex. There are more products and services available now than ever before. Students need to be prepared to deal with all of it.” The Institute has developed personal finance standards outlining what kids should know at each grade level.