Each One Teach One With the average college grad $20,000 in debt, our kids need to learn more about finance. Other kids may be the best teachers
(MONEY Magazine) – For my son Jake, who is now nine and may be none too pleased that I'm telling this story, learning to ride a bike was difficult. His dad and I tried everything we could think of to get him to balance--riding on grass, on soft-surface tennis courts, with training wheels and without. Nothing worked. Then one day his friend Ben, who climbed to the top of the refrigerator at age three and mastered biking soon thereafter, invited Jake over to pedal around his cul-de-sac. Jake fell a few times, Ben whispered something in his ear, Jake nodded and all of a sudden he took off. To this day, I don't know what was said. When I asked Jake, he said, "Ben really helped me."
There are some things in life that seem to be best taught by peers--how to talk to the opposite sex, how to plan a vacation for your family, how to change the ring on your cell phone. Now I'm tempted to add how to manage your money to the list.
Four years ago the Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) program at the University of Arizona (home of the Arizona Wildcats) began an educational program called Credit-Wise Cats. Initially, there were just five students involved; they volunteered to help teach other students how to manage their credit-card debt. As time passed, Credit-Wise Cats secured a grant from a local credit counseling organization, and the program flourished; it even spawned copycats at the Universities of Florida and South Carolina. Today, 10 Arizona students are paid to give workshops and presentations to classes, Greek organizations and residence halls. And though they still talk about how to handle credit, they also deal with shopping for cars, budgeting and understanding benefits when you're weighing job offers. "Students are more open to the message when it comes from other students," says Melinda Burke, the program's faculty adviser.
And that's not the only example. This spring in Chicago, Susan Beacham of Money Savvy Generation, a company that markets educational personal-finance tools to kids and teens, trained 36 students from six high schools to teach the basics of personal finance to seventh-and eighth-graders. In April some 400 junior high schoolers were given classes in everything from how to read a bank statement to how to read stock tables.
Although the jury's still out on how much information the younger kids retained, Beacham, a former financial adviser, is hopeful. "When a high school student says, 'This is a priority,' a seventh-grader puts it at the top of the list," she explains. "The bonus is that the high schoolers absorb the information better when they're then required to teach it."
I'm not arguing that peers should be the only educators. Mark Schug, senior fellow at the National Council on Economic Education, notes that a continuing problem with financial education is that it has no real roots in our schools. Though it could be taught as part of an economics, math or basic business course, it doesn't fit neatly enough into any of those disciplines to be included consistently.
We're not passing along that knowledge consistently at home either. Northwestern Mutual released a study in March showing that fewer than 40% of parents say they talk about credit cards, loans, debt and their own family finances with their kids. "They'd rather talk about sex and drugs than they would about money," Schug notes.
What I am arguing is this: Since we are turning out a generation of college graduates who start adult life $20,000 in the hole, on average, these are lessons that need to be taught not once but again and again. Financial education needs a place in our elementary schools, middle schools, high schools--and our homes. And now it looks as though we'll all learn more when we share what we've learned with one another.
Editor-at-large Jean Chatzky appears regularly on NBC's Today. Contact her by e-mail at email@example.com.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CAROLYN BIGDA