During her junior year of high school, Candice Backus's teacher handed her a worksheet and instructed the 17-year-old to map out her future financial life. Backus pretended to buy a car, rent an apartment, and apply for a credit card. Then, she and her classmates played the "stock market game," investing the hypothetical earnings from their hypothetical jobs in the market in the fateful fall of 2008. "Our pretend investments crashed," Backus says, still horrified. "We felt what actual shareholders were feeling."
That pain of earning and losing money is a feeling that public schools increasingly want to teach. Forty states now offer some type of financial instruction at the elementary or high-school level, embedding lessons in balancing checkbooks and buying stock into math and social-studies classes. Though it's too early to measure the full impact of the Great Recession, anecdotally the interest in personal-finance classes has risen since 2007 when subprime became a four-letter word and bank failures a regular occurrence. Now, a handful of states including Missouri, Utah, and Tennessee require teenagers to take financial-literacy classes to graduate from high school. School districts such as Chicago are boosting their offerings in money-management classes for kids as young as elementary school, and roughly 300 colleges or universities now offer online personal-finance classes for incoming students. "These classes really say, 'This is how you live independently,' " says Ted Beck, president of National Endowment for Financial Education.
Rather than teach investment strategies or financial wizardry, these courses offer a back-to-the-basics approach to handling money: Don't spend what you don't have. Put part of your monthly salary into a savings account, and invest in the stock market for the long-term rather than short-term gains. For Backus, this means dividing her earnings from her part-time job at a fast-food restaurant into separate envelopes for paying bills, spending, and saving. "Money is so hard to make but so easy to spend," she says one weekday after school. "That was the big takeaway."
Teaching kids about the value of cash certainly is one of the programs' goals, but teachers also want students to think hard about their finances long term. It's easy for teenagers to get riled up about gas prices because many of them drive cars. But the hard part is urging them to put off the instant gratification of buying a new T shirt or an iPod. "Investing and retirement aren't things teenagers are thinking about. For them, the future is this weekend," says Gayle Whitefield, a business and marketing teacher at Utah's Riverton High School.
Utah began its financial-literacy program when the state's personal bankruptcy rate shot up five years ago. Now, in the midst of this Great Recession, Utah schools are expanding financial literacy offerings, so that kids in grades K-12 learn about financial planning, money management, savings, and investing. "The state's personal bankruptcy rate really woke people up," says Julie Felshaw, the financial- and economic-education specialist for the Utah State Department of Education. "Parents say they wish they'd had a class like this."
That's a big goal for these classes: preventing kids from making the same financial missteps their parents did when it comes to saving, spending, and debt. Though the personal savings rate has shot up to 4.2 percent as of July 2009, that's still a far distance from 1982, when Americans saved 11.2 percent of their incomes. It's hard for schools to teach strict money-management skills when teenagers go home and watch their parents rack up credit-card debt. It's like telling your kids not to smoke and then lighting up a cigarette in front of them, Beck says.
The other hiccups in this burgeoning field of financial literacy, ironically, are money and time. The New Jersey state legislature passed a bill in the spring of 2009 that mandated that six high schools run pilot programs to teach students personal finance, but the state didn't allocate any cash for the program or develop a specific course. Instead, teachers are supposed to sandwich financial-literacy classes between math, reading, and test prep. "Schools are being told to put this into their curriculums when they already have so many things they have to incorporate into their day," Beck says.
Even with these challenges, students such as Backus say learning about money in school is worthwhile. After Backus finished her financial-literacy class, she opened up a savings account at her local bank and started to think more about how she and her family would pay for college. "She just has a better understanding of money and how it affects the world," says her mother, Darleen—and that's down to the minutiae of how money is spent at-large from taxes to bank bailouts to the federal government's deficit. All of this talk of money can make Backus worry, she says, but luckily, she feels prepared to face it.