Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Financial literacy: It's not as easy as ATM

By Shira J. BossSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 12, 2002


Remember in school when you practiced balancing checkbooks? No? That's because personal-finance skills have rarely been taught in the classroom.

Skip to next paragraph

Despite initiatives to help high-schoolers manage the green stuff, students' financial knowledge has actually been slipping, according to a periodic survey conducted by the Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy.

"It's a dismal situation," says Dara Duguay, executive director of Jump$tart, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. "Only 10 percent of youth are graduating from high school with any kind of instruction in personal finance."

That deficiency carries over into college and adulthood, and often adds up to a pile of debt. One in 10 students owes more than $7,000 on credit cards before college graduation, according to student-loan company Nellie Mae.

When parents do take it upon themselves to familiarize their children with money management, the effect is powerful, says Mark Shug, a professor at the University of Wisconsin's Center for Economic Education in Milwaukee. "But it turns out that most parents don't talk to their children about these matters, and I suspect that's because parents themselves don't feel confident about them," he says.

The nonprofit National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE) is devoted to helping fill this gap. It has designed curricula to work within math, economics, and social-studies classes. "We show teachers how this might fit into what they're doing anyway," says Elizabeth Schiever, NEFE's director.

NEFE offers free class materials to schools and hosts a Web-based course to guide teachers, parents, and the public (

Although fewer than 10 states require a unit of structured personal-finance education, the subject is starting to receive more attention. The new federal education legislation includes the first appropriation specifically geared toward promoting financial literacy.

"A lot of public and private organizations are making an effort to address these issues, partly because their customers won't be good customers if they don't know what these things are," says Dave Mancl, director of the office offinancial education at the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions.

Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has been an outspoken proponent of financial-literacy education. Other supporters include banks like JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo. Credit- card companies back financial education programs, too, but are often considered as part of the problem.

Two years ago, Wisconsin formed a task force to figure out how the state could remain financially competitive. "Their No. 1 recommendation was that personal financial literacy be taught K through 12 and fully funded," Mr. Mancl says. Several other states have related legislation pending.

In Wisconsin, high-schoolers now can apply for a two-week "economics boot camp" during the summer. There they learn about saving, credit management, and investing, as well as the basics of how the economy works. As an incentive, the program gives a $500 savings bond to everyone who completes the course.

"The stock market to me was just a bunch of numbers, and I wanted to learn how to save and invest for college," says Theresa Abler, a junior at Milwaukee High School of the Arts who participated in the Youth Enterprise Academy last summer. Theresa earns money working part time as a waitress, and says the program motivated her to change her habits. "Before, I was spending all my money on stupid stuff: movies, going out with friends, spending it without thinking," she says. "Now I put half of my money in the bank for college."