WHEN Paul Richard talks about the importance of managing one's flow of cash and credit, he knows what he's talking about.
Twenty-five years ago he went bankrupt after years of overusing credit cards.
He hasn't used plastic since, and he now devotes his energies to helping others learn to watch their spending habits.
Mr. Richard, who is vice president of the National Center for Financial Education (NCFE), a nonprofit organization in San Diego, says he sees numerous signs that Americans have much to learn when it comes to saving. He attributes the perennial federal budget deficit and a decline in the dollar's value in world currency markets partly to Americans' low savings rate.
''The forces in our society encouraging people to spend are so powerful and so well organized,'' he says, that opposing efforts, such as the NCFE are swimming against the tide.
''Young people are indoctrinated to spend'' by advertising, and often their parents are living from paycheck to paycheck, never having learned how to manage their budgets, Richard says.
The ability to save money, in his view, is less dependent on ''external'' factors, such as pay raises, as it is on ''internal'' decisions such as saying, ''I'm going to start saving today no matter what.''
Loren Dunton started the NCFE in 1982. Earlier, he founded the College for Financial Planning in Denver, which grants two-year Certified Financial Planner degrees.
One of the NCFE's aims is to encourage more financial education at the elementary and high school level. Richard has led seminars for teachers in about 40 states.
But many school systems, he says, resist adding a required financial course because it would mean dropping part of the current curriculum. Often social studies teachers incorporate some lessons on finance, he says.
The NCFE also distributes a catalog of books that target parents, from a ''Do-It Yourself Credit Repair and Improvement Guide'' to comic books to teach kids about concepts such as a checkbook and a household budget.
Richard is also a guest on radio shows and solicits media coverage to promote the center's ideas.
Among Richard's favorite practices are:
r Paying children an allowance, so they can learn patience and planning in buying what they want. Parents should not offer ''bailouts'' when the child fails to save enough to attend a rock concert, he says.
r Using coupons at stores. Richard says he saved $845 last year by doing this.
r Joining credit unions, which, he says, often offer good youth programs to encourage saving.
r Topping his black list is cosigning for credit, something he says parents should never do. ''What my father did, unknowingly, was start me out on a life of indebtedness,'' when he cosigned on a car loan when Richard was in college. That sent a signal that it was OK to be in debt without having an income, he says.
Another tip for people who take out car loans: The shorter the term of the loan, the better, Richard says. The buyer begins to build equity in the car after 13 months with a three-year loan, but not until the 37th month with a five-year loan.
* For a NCFE catalog, send $1 to the National Center for Financial Education, P.O. Box 34070, San Diego, CA 92163.