Is Formal Personal Finance Education a Failure? Some Thoughts on Improving It

When I was in high school, I took a consumer education proficiency test and passed it with flying colors, demonstrating that I had the knowledge needed to manage my own money and be a savvy shopper. Within ten years, I was buried in debt.

This isn’t an experience that’s unique to me. On The Simple Dollar’s Facebook page (feel free to become a fan), I recently asked “Did you take a personal finance or consumer ed class in school? Was it useful to you? Did it keep you from making financial mistakes later on?”

Quite a few people publicly stated the uselessness of their personal finance education, while still others emailed me or sent me direct messages about it. A sampling of the comments:

Ryan B.: “i had to take consumers ed with drivers ed and […] no….i had to learn from mistakes…”
Kelly K.: “My consumer ed class in high school was a waste of time.”
Charlie R.: “Yes, I did, and no, it didn’t.”
Baley W.: “Senior year in high school we took FPU. I remembered the principles, but I still got into debt. I don’t think it helped one bit, even though I’d like to think so.”
Shiela F.: “In high school & college along with accounting classes and no, it did not help. ”
Annie J.: “We had a small personal finance chapter in Home Ec./Family Relations class and no, it wasn’t helpful.”

Even some who got value from their classes saw that it didn’t impact their peers. Amanda H. stated: “I took a college personal finance course at the behest of my father. It wasn’t perfect, but it gave me a whole new awareness on things like investing and how interest works. And how important it is to get started young. Which I think was rare and put me miles ahead of my college-age peers.”

Many others didn’t recall any sort of education, which either means there literally wasn’t a class or the class had so little impact on them that they did not recall it at a later date.

Simply put, personal finance education as it currently exists is not reaching people when they need it. Quite often, they learn about it later on through their own difficult experiences.

In fact, I think “experience” is the key word here.

Consumer education and personal finance education is often lumped in with many other classes at the high school level. They’re taught in a classroom environment with minimal examples that actually impact the lives of students in any way. Sometimes it’s a class all its own, but other times it’s just a small piece of another class and at yet other times it’s not dealt with at all.

Just like any other ordinary class, one or two will “click,” a handful of others will approach it like any other academic subject and succeed on the surface without deeply understanding it, and many others will let the info go in one ear and out the other, retaining as little as possible.

Simply put, treating personal finance as just another thing that students need to be “educated” in doesn’t really work.

How can we possibly make personal finance education relevant (beyond the simple step of making sure that it’s at least presented)? Over the past few years, I’ve been collecting ideas from the mountains of personal finance books I’ve read, and I’ve got some suggestions for how to turn personal finance education into something much more valuable than the experiences described above.

First, homework (and classwork) should focus on discussion and actually doing things. Make homework (most of the time) very simple for this class. Go home and ask your parents a basic question about their finances and report on what you learned. Why do they buy a certain product type? What was their best experience at work? How do they do their taxes? The goal isn’t to get students to tell about their families, but to get them talking at home about personal finances.

At other times, focus on actually doing things. Make everyone in the class get a savings account or a checking account in their name. Have them go to the store and find the best bargains they can on enough laundry detergent and dryer sheets to do 100 loads of clothes. Hand out copies of credit card offers and have them figure out what happens if they charge $500 on the card and don’t pay it.

Second, put a big emphasis on personal stories. If you go around and ask people what the one thing that got them on the right financial track and helped keep them there was, it’s almost always someone else’s story and how they translated that into success. Dave Ramsey’s story. My own story. The stories in books like Your Money or Your Life. People see some element of themselves in that story and they want what that person has achieved, so it makes the steps to get there seem much more real and relevant.

If you’re teaching, use your own story, but don’t be afraid to get speakers in very regularly who are open to talking about their own stories.

Third, recognize that you’re trying to plant key concepts that may not “click” for years. Don’t spend a day talking about the difference between 401(k)s, 403(b)s, and Roth IRAs. It’s not relevant to them and it’s too much detail. Instead, make absolutely sure they understand the key things that they’re going to face.

One key technique for this is to cycle back regularly to old topics that you’ve already covered. Just like exercise, you can’t keep a muscle strong if you vigorously exercise it once and then never touch it again. Scatter specific topics and speakers throughout the year that call back to the key topics already learned.

Finally, focus on goals and how to approach them. One of the few examples of personal finance that I remember from school was when a teacher in elementary school kept a jar on her desk. She told us that if she just put a quarter in that jar every single school day, there’d be enough money in that jar for a pizza party for the class at the end of the year, and every little bit students tossed in would make that party better.

Every day, she’d add a coin to it at a time when she knew everyone was watching. Sure enough, that jar slowly filled up. Sure enough, at the end of the year, the money in that jar paid for a big pizza party.

It stuck with me for a lot of reasons. Repetition, of course, was one of them. The big pizza party at the end was the other one.

Even now, though, the idea that there was a goal set at the beginning of the year, that a plan was put in place for that goal, and that a little bit of effort each day brought the class to that goal has an impact on me.

Don’t be afraid to do this exact thing. Even more so, don’t be afraid to share your own goals right in front of the students. “I’m saving $20 per school day for a car,” you might say, then actually buy a car with that cash at the end of the year. Save $10 a day during the first semester, then buy a laptop (or some other item they might care about) before Christmas.

The simple truth is that a typical classroom experience isn’t going to reach most students – and even trying new things won’t reach every student. Instead, focus on doing everything you can to hammer home a few key ideas – debt is bad, saving money is good, planning ahead is great – and try to relate that to their life.

I think Sarah D. put it best: “Honestly, I don’t think you really learn anything that you are not invested and interested in. The very best lessons I learned about money were from actual experience.” Experience, not classroom learning, gives people the personal finance lessons they need. This goes not just for teachers, but for parents, too.

In fact, I’ll leave this article with a note to parents. Personal finance is a life skill, just like changing your underwear. Be involved in teaching your kids how to manage money, just like you were in teaching them to change their underwear.

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