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If Personal Finance Were A 4 Year Course in High School

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Devin Wanzor is a senior at Oklahoma State University majoring in Finance. The majority of his spare time is spent golfing, reading personal finance articles/books, and renovating his condo and getting it ready to sell.

Majoring in Finance in college has helped me learn a great deal about taking care of my personal finances, as well as other advanced topics. What about people who aren’t Finance or business majors in college, or what about people who never go to college at all? I think that, in general, most of the classes I took in high school kept me busy, but lacked any knowledge that will be useful to me in my lifetime. There is one big topic that I think will be useful to everyone most of his or her life: money. It makes sense to me to teach these topics in high school, instead of having kids memorize vocabulary words that they will forget next week. I remember very little that I learned in high school, except for math and English skills.

You might think that since I am a soon-to-be finance professional, I would like to have a financial illiterate public to drive my business, but I believe that as more people learn about more sophisticated products (IRA’s etc.) then actually there would be more people in the U.S. seeking out advice and trying to make responsible financial decisions. In my opinion, a more informed customer is usually better.

Here is my 4-year plan of what kids should be learning in high school about money and personal finance:

Freshman:

1. Checkbook Mechanics – Writing, balancing, statement reconciliation, etc.
2. Saving for Larger Purchases

I cannot remember exactly when I had my first checking account. I don’t think it was before I was a freshman though. I think this is a perfect time to teach this skill, perhaps before that first checking account is opened.

Sophomore:

1. Earning Power – Jobs for young adults
2. Automatic Monthly Savings and the Power of Compounding
3. What Happened to My Paycheck? (Meet Mr. Taxman)

I think it is important for young people to understand taxes and exactly why the government is taking them (or why the government SAYS they are taking the money). Also, since this is around the time I turned 16, it is a good time to learn about jobs since they would be able to drive themselves to said job. Lastly, if a steady income comes about, this would be the perfect time to see how saving a little money each month can turn into huge amounts over time when the money is earning interest.

Junior:

1. College: It Will Cost HOW much?
2. Introduction to the time value of money: Today is better than tomorrow
3. Budgeting: How to spend less then you earn. (How to break the trend of a Negative savings rate in America)

I think people should understand the costs associated with college and learn how to make a plan to get there. I think the budgeting thing pretty much speaks for itself.

Senior:

1. How will I ever own a house? Introduction to Mortgages
2. 401(k)’s, IRA’s and other retirement savings vehicles
3. Investments: Stocks, Bonds, CD’s, Mutual Funds and other investments
4. How to use credit cards wisely

All of these are topics that will be important to all Americans. This tops off the list of some of the personal finance topics that I believe are very important to the financial health of Americans.

Are there any other topics you believe are important, yet not so advanced that a high school aged person could understand? Are any of my suggested topics perhaps too advanced?

{ 22 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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22 Responses to “If Personal Finance Were A 4 Year Course in High School”

  1. Chris says:

    Managing bills! Before heading out into the real world they need to learn about contracts, how to read them and how to shop around to find the best terms. This would include learning how to read your cellphone bill, your electricity bill, and how to quickly spot errors and how to deal with them.

    Also, the truth about advertising. From very young they should be questioning what they see in ads. But as adults they need to critically evaluate advertisements every day, from “brand new car for $5!” commercials to the coupons at the grocery store.

  2. D says:

    I think that the majority of these things should be taught younger and on a regular basis, in order to form habits. Our schools work with checkbooks for about 3 months in 4-5th grades. Going through the basics of weekly checks, and paying bills.

    During 7-8th grades, they will be given a pretend investment account with $10k. For 3 months or so they need to make stock purchases and sales of stocks that they have researched. This just skims the surface, but something is better than nothing.

    I do believe the above..plus..should be built into their habits by including these things through out the year in their course work. Creating and building more knowledge as they go.

    • wanzman says:

      I am a little afraid of the stock trading simulation in 7th or 8th grade. I did that in high school as a junior, and I made a ton of “money” just because I bought a company I liked (and put all my money into that company). Its difficult I think to turn kids loose on that, I think there is the opportunity to develop some bad habits. Even as a senior in high school, I think stock investing is still beyond a majority of students. I recommended it in my plan above simply because this is the last opportunity many people might have to at least learn something.

  3. Josh says:

    Amazing list man, but I think the learning should start in Middle school. The earlier the better. Great ideas though. My friends and I always talk about the fact that if we had had courses like these in high school, we would be in such good shape now!

  4. Andrea (FP) says:

    Junior Achievement aims to provide some of this education (www.ja.org) but they rely on volunteers to go into the classes and teach – and the volunteers can be in ANY profession. Their programs start in kindergarten.

    Dave Ramsey, who is completely obnoxious (imo), also offers a curriculum for teachers, but it costs several hundred dollars.

    In the “good old days,” Home Ec wasn’t just about making cupcakes, it covered … well, Economics, like the name says. :) Budgets, managing home finances, shopping wisely, etc. Good article – http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/2292

    When I was in high school, we got a pretend investment account, which didn’t do much except give us a chance to randomly pick stocks and not really care if they did well or not. Learning how to pick stocks is the *last* thing people should learn when it comes to personal finance and financial literacy.

    One thing that should be focused on now that has changed over the last few decades since I was a kid is the lack of actual cash in our day to day lives. My sons don’t get a cash allowance. They get a checkbook register and I “auto-deposit” their allowance every week. At the same day, they do an “auto-transfer” of 25% to another “savings” account. If they want to buy something, they ask for money from me and it gets deducted from their register – I’m a Mommy ATM, basically. It saves me from having to have cash on hand and it gets them used to thinking about their balances even though they don’t have a physical wad of cash to spend.

    There are lots of things that should be taught, like awareness of advertising and the checkbooks mentioned in the comments. It’s really insane that schools don’t incorporate it – it’d be so easy to slide things like this into math, history, and reading.

  5. Easy E says:

    Right on. I was talking with a friend about teaching a finance course in high school when I am retired. I think that it is a fantastic idea and I think we should all push for it to become a required course. It is the single most important thing to survival in the world today.

  6. Amanda says:

    I definitely like the idea of doing the credit card management portion when kids are seniors. This will be right before the turn 18 and can actually get their own credit card / go off to college.

    Great ideas. It’d be fun to teach some of these classes!

  7. zen says:

    I’d say have the saving earlier, check book balancing at 16, and credit cards at 17 – otherwise you could be reaching them too late.

  8. Dan says:

    Freshmen through Junior year look great and I think they would be very beneficial to students. The problem for me comes with the Investment and Mortgage information in the senior year. It is very important that students know about this information but, what exactly are they learning and who is going to teach these classes.

    Many people have different opinions about the best principals for investing and mortgages. ie. Active or passive management of mutual funds, roth IRA vs. Traditional IRA vs. 401k. I think getting exposure to these products is important but there is a thin line between exposure and advice.

    I had a teacher in college who was teaching us about mutual funds and because he also had worked as a financial advisor he was teaching us about actively managed funds with high expenses and turnover ratios and was basically selling them to the students. Thankfully we were all finance majors and could analyze the investments for ourselves but if you were tough these were good at a younger age without experience you may not know any better.

  9. wally says:

    Yeah! Finally, people are getting it! I do teach a year-long personal finance class for grades 10-12 that covers all of the above plus risk management (insurance), “smart” shopping for small and large purchases, and economic concepts such as opportunity cost and inflation/recession. Rather than a set of skills (like balancing a checkbook), our goal is to teach strategies for money managment. To overcome the obstacle of students not caring how their investments do or how well their budgets balance, they have to keep a journal of the strategies they used to make the decisions. They are graded on their rationale. If their portfolio does poorly, but they used sound strategies to choose their investment vehicles, make purchases, etc., they do well in the class. It is difficult to grade the success of what should be long-term investing when it is compressed into 8 months of performance. So far, the class has been a hit with students who have commented over and over again how they feel they are receiving more information they will use in “real life” than they do in other courses.

    Some states are beginning to require courses in money management for graduation. Check with your legislators and jumpstartcoalition.org. Our economy and our future NEED this!

  10. hustler says:

    they should make Personal Finance a requirement for a high school diploma.

  11. Posco says:

    The key is making lessons that are captivating and applicable to the students’ age, and yet will also teach lessons that will be applicable to adult situations.

    Students are lazy. They won’t necessarily want to learn about how to finance a house if they won’t be buying a house for another 6 years. And teach them how to read a contract? Hmmmm.

    I had a Junior Achievement section in my Social Science class in 9th grade. It’s true that we remember very little from jr. high and high school lessons, and the personal finance lessons are no exception. I vaguely remember “learning” how to write checks (I already knew that — mom taught me). I vaguely remember “playing” the stock market.

    High school graduation required taking a one-semester course on “personal finance”. I skimmed the 200-page “textbook” in a couple weeks and passed the course by taking the final exam. The curriculum was severely lacking. You cannot teach these lessons with a book and homework. I think the best way to teach this stuff is to simulate the real world (with different students playing different roles — buyers and sellers) or “play” with real money, as in allowance from mom and dad.

    By the way, the title of this post is a bit misnamed — you can’t spend a FOUR-YEAR course on this stuff. It would probably be integrated into other existing curricula, plus ONE course in high school.

  12. Sasha says:

    Great ideas! Though really, students would learn best if parents could teach them these things, we can’t count on every parent to do this. To me, the stuff listed for seniors is almost too advanced for high school students–I’m still learning now as a recent college graduate. But I suppose for those who don’t go to college, it is important they know about these things too.

  13. Puck says:

    Unfortunately, the students got introductory credit cards in the first year, ran up a huge debt and had to drop out in the third year before they got to take the course “How to use credit cards wisely”.

    • wanzman says:

      ? This is a suggestion for a high school course, so I don’t think the majority of kids would turn 18 until junior or senior year, so they would not be able to get credit cards, and thus not be able to go into debt.

      Perhaps you thought it was meant as a college course?

  14. Minimum Wage says:

    What’s the use of all that if your earning power is minimum wage?

    • Andrea says:

      If you’re planning on only making minimum wage for the rest of your life, probably not much use.

  15. J. Joyner says:

    As a business education teacher, I feel that you are right on the money! Keyboarding at many schools is required but I also think that financial literacy should be required as well; if not in the business department, then in the math departments and it should be a part of the high school assessments.

  16. kaly says:

    I agree except I think it could all be done in one year, perhaps the senior year. I’ve been saying it for years, but until it’s a requirement, I don’t see it happening.

    I’d be the first in line to teach this in the schools in my county.

  17. Bryan says:

    seriously? We did checking accounts in the regular class during 5th grade. I definitely think this is a better idea than the new CARD act which is just going to push the inevitable irresponsibility out a few years, though. Specifically, this is way to spread out I think a few weeks on an overview of finances would be great, but oh well. as Ben Franklin so rightly said “Experience keeps a dear School, but Fools will learn in no other, and scarce in that.”

  18. financialwizardess says:

    I agree with posters above that JA is a great resource, as is the Jump$tart organization. I’ve given this considerable thought in the past since I have had the desire to teach these lessons to the next generation. However, I think that what you outline could easily be instituted in other existing classes very easily. You don’t have to take a semester of finance each year, just implement those lessons into the required English course, or Math course (but it seems some kids don’t take 4 years of Math anymore?) Just a thought.

  19. DK says:

    Other Topics to cover:
    Insurances (Home, Auto, Long Term Care and Term Life)
    Annuities (Fixed and Variable)
    Obtaining Legal Advice
    Debt Freedom Date (Mortgage crossover, etc.)
    Retirement considerations


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