After taking home economics in middle school, I knew how to make a nylon gym bag. After taking Economics 101 in high school, I knew the relationship between supply and demand.
I didn’t take anything closely resembling a personal finance class. I wish I had the chance to, but luckily I was generally taught or told what to do about handling money. Many kids don’t have this chance, and even the ones who do might still make bad choices when it comes to their finances.
While many might see personal finance as just that — a personal issue — I believe it became a collective societal issue as soon as the housing bubble burst in 2007 and brought on a recession that has since affected almost every American.
Surely the blame for the housing crisis does not rest solely on individuals, but it’s important to understand the individual’s role in the complex system that ultimately led to the crisis.
An episode of NPR’s This American Life talked about the detrimental practices that occurred through the unregulated housing market. One man who received a $540,000 loan without proof of income stated, “I wouldn’t have loaned me the money. And nobody that I know would have loaned me the money … Nobody came and told me a lie … That wasn’t the situation. The situation was that I needed the money. And I’m not trying to absolve myself of anything.”
Should this man have accepted the loan? No. Should the banks have even offered these loans? Absolutely not. But instead of playing the blame game, let’s focus on what can be done.
We need to empower our children by giving them the financial know-how that will enable them to become smarter and more responsible consumers and savers.
According to a survey released in March by the nonprofit Council for Economic Education, only 13 states require high school students to take a personal finance class to graduate. As the educational system in this country waits in limbo for a major rehaul, we need to become advocates for more practical learning.
Just as vocational school is more practical than a four-year undergraduate degree for many high schoolers, so is personal finance a more useful class than something less applicable to the real world. I will leave that distinction up to the education experts.
The encouraging news is that students themselves recognize the value of understanding money matters. A recent poll by Sallie Mae found that 84 percent of high school students want more financial education.
Parents have also expressed concerns over their children’s lack of financial knowledge. Some parents may feel unprepared to properly explain personal finance to their children due to their own mishandling of money matters. Others may feel they lack the necessary knowledge in today’s high-tech, competitive, consumer-driven world.
So let’s imagine a world where every high schooler in the country takes a personal finance class before graduation. I imagine they might begin to understand that you shouldn’t spend what you don’t have.
They might recognize the value of having a savings account. They might become more involved in picking a college that gives good return on investment. They might only have one or two credit cards and use them thoughtfully. They might realize the importance of making payments on time and keeping up their credit rating. They might understand why certain taxes are taken out of their paychecks and what a 401k is. And hopefully, they will become empowered to take control of their lives and feel more confident about their futures.
Of course, the requirement of personal finance classes will not make every graduating senior a fiscally responsible and money-conscious individual. But it’s a start.
Teaching the next generation the importance of being financially responsible falls on our generation. As a future social worker, I recognize the value of preventative work from an early age. As Frederick Douglass once said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
And while there is a growing field in financial social work, the limitations of this field include its focus on making changes on the individual level as opposed to more comprehensive work that focuses on the root causes of the issue.So as we think about education reform and the state of our economy, as we think about globalization and our competitive society, let’s remember that teaching personal finance is not only practical — it’s a good investment.
Alla Abramov is a graduate student in the School of Social Policy and Practice. her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.