Ask teenagers about money and they'll talk freely about spending it -- on cars and clothes and CDs, dates and proms, snacks and gifts. But ask them about saving it and the chorus of voices grows quieter.
As Michael McNeil, a senior at North Reading High School, explains with a laugh, "When I got my paycheck I thought, Hmmm, should I put this away? But then I thought, Naaah." One classmate calls money "a revolving door." And Mark Scarfo, another senior, says, "When you have a lot of money, say $800, you want to see if you can get to $1,000. If you have $100, you just want to blow it."
This casual approach is one reason that, at 9:30 on a Wednesday morning, Michael, Mark, and 13 other students in a financial management class listen as Geoffrey Simons, a senior financial adviser at American Express Financial Advisors in Wakefield, Mass., talks about the need to set goals and priorities.
"Most people don't have a plan - they just go ahead and buy," Mr. Simons explains. "The decisions you make have a big ripple effect. The process is deciding what you really want, and then making a plan for spending and saving."
To help students create a plan, Simons serves as a guest teacher in this six-week "financial literacy" program, covering such topics as income, stocks and bonds, credit, and the value of invested money. He works with William Devin, the class's regular teacher, who says, "We've got to let kids know what's happening out there. The credit debt in this country is just unbelievable."
The unusual curriculum, developed by the National Endowment for Financial Education in Denver, represents part of increasing efforts by financial experts to teach students about money. Despite their youth, their economic clout is impressive. Last year American teenagers spent an estimated $103 billion, according to Teenage Research Unlimited in Northbrook, Ill. Boys average $70 a week and girls $64.
This month, as part of National Saving Month, Merrill Lynch financial consultants are conducting "teach-ins" at schools across the country to emphasize the importance of saving. And last month, Money magazine published a special supplement, called Extra Money, to help high school students stretch their incomes, invest wisely, and borrow responsibly. In addition, Stein Roe Mutual Funds has created a Young Investor Fund to teach a new generation about investing. It offers stocks of particular interest to young people.
For Simons, talking about investing includes giving the class an imaginary $10,000 to buy three stocks. Each week students chart gains and losses. "It's a real eye-opener that they can invest."
Another eye-opener is seeing how much they spend. When he asks students to track their expenses for two weeks, he tells them, "You'll be surprised how much money goes through your hands every day. It's an amazing amount."
Amazing indeed. During one five-day period this month, students' spending ranged from a high of $222.98 for Anthony Perrotti, a junior, to an impressive low of $19.45 for Emily Thomas, a sophomore.
Anthony, who earns $10 an hour working for a construction company and was chosen Business Student of the Month in March, says he averages $100 a week on restaurant meals alone. By contrast, Emily says, "If I go to college, I'll be totally responsible for paying for it. That's a scary thought."
Other teenagers share her financial concerns. Nearly three-quarters of students in a Money magazine poll say they worry about money. A quarter fear they won't be able to afford college, and 11 percent worry that they won't have enough money to raise a family.
As a public school teacher for 30 years, Mr. Devin has watched financial attitudes change for both students and parents. On the positive side, he says, 5 out of 6 students today have savings accounts. At the same time, he notes, "Parents nowadays just give, give, give, without making them responsible. Kids say, 'I went to my father and got this.' It's happening everywhere. It kind of sends the wrong message."
Sending better messages is one purpose behind Extra Money magazine, which features headlines such as "Great Cheap Dates" and "You (Yes, You) Can Become a Millionaire." Publisher Geoff Dodge distributed nearly a million copies to schools, Junior Achievement programs, and subscribers of Money who have teenagers in the home.
For eight years Mr. Dodge has gone into high schools as a volunteer for Junior Achievement to discuss personal finance and economics. "Students just come alive when they have the opportunity to talk about things like credit cards, auto loans, and the importance of a personal budget," he says. "They really want to know about it."
The value of such efforts becomes apparent in a 1995 survey of household finances by Merrill Lynch. It found that people who took courses in household finance, consumer education, or economics in high school save significantly more than those who did not. Those who held bank accounts as children also saved more than those who did not.
In addition to its high school program, which has reached 766,000 teens in nine years, the National Endowment for Financial Education is this year awarding $25,000 for students' essays and posters that answer the question: "What in the world is financial literacy?" The competition drew 1,200 entries. Winners will be announced in May.
Summing up the value of the high school curriculum, director Elizabeth Schiever says, "it introduces an element of prevention. We want young people to have positive experiences with money. In many homes with financial problems, kids are getting negative input. We want them to know they can apply this learning, and that will result in giving them control."
Learning to Save Starts at Home
To get children and teenagers interested in saving money when they'd rather spend it, Merrill Lynch offers these ideas for parents:
* Start by having children save at home. Use envelopes or a bank. Tape a picture of the object your child wants on the side of the bank.
* For preschool children, provide a bank that can be opened easily. Don't be concerned if they can't save for long periods. They'll still be learning the concept of saving.
* For children around the age of 9, consider opening a bank savings account. Let the child fill out deposit slips, hand money to the teller, and record deposits.
* Motivate teens by offering small rewards for reaching savings goals in a specified length of time. Challenge them to save $50 in six months and say you'll match the amount if they make it. Don't be concerned if the saving goal - a designer jacket or CD player - isn't one you consider worthy. A savings habit is being instilled.
* Be an example your children can follow to learn the value of saving. Tell them what percentage of your income you save and what you're saving for. Point out your investments in the financial pages of the newspaper and track their performance with your child.
Source: 'Saving and the American Family,' Merrill Lynch.