Monday, December 20, 2010

What are they teaching kids about finance and budgeting?

My eighth grade daughter just participated in a program on finances and budgeting sponsored by Junior Achievement. A Junior Achievement teen personal finance survey reports that more than half of teens are not confident that they will make sound choices in terms of credit. Moreover, nearly all teens think they should have a credit card by age 21. The survey observes:

“Teens are admitting that they don’t have knowledge of some of the basic money management skills around investing, budgeting and using credit. Despite the alarming numbers, teens overwhelmingly have high hopes for future financial stability. The poll shows we need to do a better job of ensuring our youth are financially literate. JA offers a broad range of age-appropriate financial literacy curricula, from kindergarten through grade 12.”
So, all of this sounds a little dire. Making the work of Junior Achievement even more important, of course. And perhaps a few basic tips from Suzi Orman are in order? Not surprisingly, we talk to our daughter about making wise choices and living within her means. This would include everything from buying items on sale to purchasing used items on sites like Craigslist. We also talk to her about being a good citizen in terms of the environment as well, including walking and biking when possible. That is, not everyone (particularly college students) needs a car.

I was ready to embrace the Junior Achievement concern to educate teenagers, until my daughter started asking me questions about the workbooks her teacher assigned. She understood her profile to be a college student who has a job earning about $30,000 per year. A little unrealistic for a college student, but all right. The program has the student fill out budgets. This is where my daughter had many questions and I simply could not support the choices the program expected. For instance:

  1. The workbook not only mandated that she purchase a car (whether she could afford it or not), but also required her to take out a five year loan on the car. In the summer Oprah magazine, Suzi Orman yet again blasted this practice advising against car loans more than 36 months or less (7 Deals You Should Never Make). Basically, perhaps one needs to shop for a less expensive car.

  2. The workbook also mandated that she replace $650 of household furnishings and that she must put it on a credit card and pay for it that way. Apparently, no option to save up and buy in cash or to purchase something used.

  3. The workbook required an apartment. While the student could get roommates, there was no easy way for the student to select a less costly alternative of living in a college dormitory where utilities, rent and food are typically included.

In the end, I advised her on how to best fill out her worksheets making the least devastating decisions. She did budget for buying household furnishings with cash and saving most of the money as a down-payment for the car. While I might have been fine with this if it was designed to teach teens the devastating impact of debt, there were no comparisons to other models or advise on better decisions. I also wrote a note in the workbook for the teacher asking him not to teach our children that it is fine to enter into these types of credit and financial situations.

The result of all this? The teacher was angry with her when he saw the worksheets and gave her a D for not following the program requirements. She had waited until the last minute to finish this, so her work was not as neat as it should have been, but really? Maybe the teacher will reconsider. In the end, I'd rather her get a D on the junior achievement and an remain solvent for a lifetime. Isn't all this debt part of what lead to the financial crisis?


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