'Kids, I'd like you to meet your money...'
Parents owe it to their children to teach them a bit about saving, spending, and investing. Try starting with a few glass jars.
Since teenagers typically don't have much money beyond the cash in their wallets and a few bucks in a savings account, the notion of money management may seem surreal to them.
Which is precisely why Chad Foster, coauthor of "Financial Literacy for Teens," recommends that they learn money skills now - before they grow up, get a job, and earn money that can easily slip through their fingers without proper training.
"These kids are all going to make a million dollars over the course of their careers," says Mr. Foster. "If they don't know how to make it, manage it, multiply it, and protect it, they're going to have financial problems later in life."
When teenagers turn 18, credit becomes available to them, and studies indicate that those financial problems don't wait long to appear. People age 25 to 34 account for the second-fastest growing percentage of those filing for bankruptcy (just after those ages 35 to 44).
The Tennessee Economic Council on Women is so concerned about the plight of financially illiterate young women that it has launched a special campaign to help make them better money managers.
So what is it that you can teach kids, and when? Mr. Foster thinks separating needs from desires is a crucial skill that will be put to the test throughout life, so there's no better time to start down that path than early grade school.
The concept can begin simply enough with a few glass jars or coffee cans. Every time a child earns a dollar from chores or allowance, he or she drops an agreed-upon amount into one jar for saving, one for spending, one for investing, and one for charity.
"It's getting them in the habit early" to budget money for a particular goal, Foster says.
Then, once they hit their teenage years, they'll be better prepared to deal with spending questions.Are tanning booths a need, or a desire? Is a new sports car a need that a used sedan can't fulfill? Foster thinks teens should have these distinctions sorted out by the time they reach the seventh grade.
By that time, kids can get real jobs and earn real money. And spend it, too. So most education efforts are geared toward senior high schoolers, people like Adam Lee of Blue Bell, Pa.
The 18-year-old graduate of a private high school near Philadelphia, Adam admits that until not too long ago he was pretty naive about managing money.
"I never thought of saving a certain portion" of money made from after-school and summer jobs, Adam says. He and his mother, Kathy Lee, had talked from time to time about work and money. But Adam says it wasn't until his senior year in high school, when he bumped into a program called FIRM (Financial Independence, Responsibility, and Management) that he became serious about the subject.
FIRM, a money-management program run by Ecount of Philadelphia, lets parents load money onto a PIN-protected debit card held by their children and then monitor their spending patterns. Like debit cards offered by other financial services companies, such as the Buxx program from credit-card issuer Visa, FIRM offers financial literacy courses geared to teenagers.
"Just giving away money doesn't help them learn where money is spent," says Matt Gillin, CEO of Ecount. (Mothers and fathers need to mind the details: Ms. Lee saw one classmate of her son's run up thousands of dollars of charges for shoes on a parent-controlled card.)
Though Adam attended a school loaded with smart, affluent kids, many of them lacked basic money-management skills, he says. He ended up giving pointers to his classmates after completing his FIRM online courses. The financial smarts he picked up convinced him he'll do well at the University of Colorado's business school, where he is now taking classes.
"This really drove me," Adam says of FIRM.
While he sought out financial literacy, sometimes it finds the students - typically in their classrooms. Foster offers a 10-day course that teachers can use along with his books. And nonprofit groups such as the JumpStart Coalition work tirelessly to put month-long or semester-long educational programs before students.
An April 2005 survey by the National Council on Economic Education found that while nearly every state requires some sort of economics education, only seven - Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, New York, and Utah - mandate a personal finance course for a student to graduate. Still, that's two more states than the 2003 survey found, and nowadays, says Nan Mead of the National Endowment for Financial Education, schools seem much more receptive to money skills curriculums.
"It's pretty much up to the school" to teach kids how to handle money, says Ms. Mead. Many parents feel they lack the necessary skills, she adds, while others believe it's the schools' job to educate teens about money.
Whatever the reason, Mead says that with the exception of more calls for teaching about entrepreneurship, the focus is pretty much the same as it always has been. Just as there are basics to grammar, there are ground-floor skills to money management: balancing a checkbook, setting monetary goals, creating a budget, saving and investing, etc. And where would a decent money- management course be these days without discussing debt and credit abuse?
Covering so much ground in one semester or less may require racing through the material. But it's raising an awareness level at a very important time for a young person, Mead says.
"This is something kids are going to use the rest of their lives," she notes. "I'm happy the schools are looking at it as a critical need."