Many of us don’t learn how to manage money until we’re faced with our first true financial decision, like renting an apartment, applying for a credit card or buying a car. But what if you learned about budgeting or credit scores in the low-stakes environment of a classroom instead? It may not sound like fun, but at least it’s more practical than trigonometry.
Financial literacy hasn’t traditionally been a priority in schools, but that is changing. The number of states requiring personal finance instruction in schools more than doubled over the past decade. Since the 2007-09 recession, ballooning student-loan debt and advocacy efforts, more people are aware of the importance of learning about money.
Now, because of the pandemic, educators say there’s never been more interest in the subject from students and parents. This year alone, lawmakers in more than 20 states introduced bills to add personal finance classes in high schools.
States shape how finance is taught
States typically dictate how personal finance is taught in schools. Twenty-two states required some form of personal finance education in high schools for the 2020-21 academic year, according to research published in April by Carly Urban, an associate professor of economics at Montana State University. The benefits of teaching high-school students basic personal finance concepts include better credit scores and lower rates of delinquency on debt as adults, research by Urban and others shows.
But personal finance education requirements vary. Some states require a course to be offered as an elective in high schools. Others allow personal finance concepts to be tucked into broader subjects such as economics or mathematics. When a stand-alone personal finance course is offered, the curriculum may be outdated, which can defeat the purpose of teaching teenagers real-world skills.
“Teaching young people how to write a check is not enough in a world of Venmo,” [a money transfer app,] says Tim Ranzetta, co-founder of Next Gen Personal Finance, an organization based in Palo Alto, California, that provides free curriculum and professional development for personal finance teachers nationwide. Next Gen advocates for personal finance to be offered as a mandatory stand-alone course for an entire semester.
Urban says the most important concepts students need to understand are how credit scores and credit reports work, how to compare financial products like loans and how to make a budget that balances savings, paying off debt and managing expenses.
Pandemic makes money talk easier
Before the pandemic, personal finance classes were often spearheaded by teachers who got into financial trouble and realized the importance of teaching kids about their mistakes, Urban says.
That’s how it went for Renee Nelson, an assistant department chair for the math department at KIPP NYC College Prep, a charter school in the Bronx. Nelson was trying to pay off credit card debt and improve her profile enough to buy a home when she began sharing her journey with students. Seeing their interest in the subject, Nelson introduced a personal finance course that students can take for college credit as well as workshops for parents.
Teachers say the pandemic brought money discussions to the forefront because everyone was facing a crisis.
“It provided some real-world wrenches in the system, things that you don’t expect that can flip your plans upside down,” says William Joy, an instructor of marketing and personal finance at Lucy Garrett Beckham High School in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. Joy says he would talk through budgeting examples in class, assigning students a fixed salary and making them allocate money toward different expenses. “Then I’d say, ‘Uh-oh the pandemic’s hit — you now make half the income, how will you spend the money?’”
Outside the classroom, money can be a taboo subject. But the past year gave families more time together and a chance to talk about it openly because many parents lost jobs or experienced a decrease in income, says Gregg Murset, a father of six, a certified financial planner and founder and CEO of BusyKid, an app that teaches kids about money.
Financial literacy isn’t a silver bullet
Financial education is helpful, but teachers are aware it doesn’t fix the consequences of systemic racism and injustice. That’s part of the lesson they want to leave students with.
Nelson’s students are Black and Hispanic, live in low-income housing and are sometimes the first college-bound members of their families. During the social justice marches of 2020, Nelson says her students witnessed rioting and picketing outside their doorsteps and brought their questions about it to the classroom. She used the opportunity to teach them how decades of discrimination led to economic inequality and how they could get involved with efforts to drive long-term change.
“Most of them don’t really know why their family is in this ongoing cycle of poverty,” Nelson says. “It was a great way to relate back to why there are all these problems in our community with money.”
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Amrita Jayakumar writes for NerdWallet. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @ajbombay.