From allowance to paychecks, educators want Maine students to understand money

Posted April 27, 2012, at 5:53 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — There are needs, and then there are wants. The difference between the two should be easy to understand, but the failure of many to grasp it contributed to the near collapse of the U.S. economy in 2008.

Teaching the skills for the next generation to successfully manage money is becoming a focus for many schools, as evidenced by the 150 teachers who attended the Fostering Financial Literacy in Maine Schools Conference at the Augusta Civic Center on Thursday. Educators saw classroom activities demonstrated for use with students in kindergarten through college level and shared ideas they have used successfully in their own classes.

Last year, Maine adopted a law that encouraged — but did not mandate — public schools to “implement an integrated model for personal finance instruction in social studies or mathematics.”

Matt Stone of the Maine Department of Education said the law as originally proposed would have added a half-year financial literacy component to the two years of mathematics required for high school graduation, but the law was scaled back. Resources for teachers are available on the department’s website and the Finance Authority of Maine offers outreach workers to teach the subject in classrooms around the state.

The need for personal financial education, speakers at the conference stressed, is an easy sell.

About 35 percent of high school students have a credit card, which carries a huge risk for financial peril, speakers noted. And the average Maine college grad leaves school with a $29,000 student loan debt. The rule of thumb is that graduates should be paying no more than 7 percent of their income on loans; for the average student to stay under that threshold, he or she would have to earn $50,000 a year.

Just as learning to read is a skill that opens doors to lifelong learning, speakers stressed that financial literacy is essential to a successful life.

Carole Glade, a financial educator, asked teachers to consider their own experiences with money: “What is it you as an adult wish you would have known as a kid? If you don’t teach them,” she said, “they may never hear it.”

A national study found that 40 states have adopted guidelines or requirements for teaching personal finance, nearly twice as many as in 1998. Nearly 90 percent of teachers see the need for such education, but 63 percent feel unqualified to teach it.

Glade and fellow presenter Barbara O’Neill of Rutgers University’s Cooperative Extension stressed that a foundation of values is needed to successfully teach personal finance. And key to that foundation are the concepts of needs versus wants.

In her classes at Rutgers, O’Neill has a student stand at one end of the room with a sign that reads “Needs” and at the other, one with a sign that says “Wants.” She calls out things such as “cellphone” and “newspaper subscription” and students walk to the sign they feel reflects their belief about such spending, which triggers a discussion.

O’Neill has students set goals for themselves. One wanted to own a Maserati sports car by the time he turned 30. Rather than denigrate the goal, she worked with the student to help him develop a specific plan to reach the goal. If he concluded that buying a $100,000 vehicle was unrealistic, she would suggest adapting the goal to a less expensive car, or buying it at 40 or 50.

For college and high school students, financial goal exercises should be short-term (up to a year), medium term (one or two years) and long-term (over two years), she said. High school students often want to plan to save money to buy a car; helping them see the other costs, such as insurance, gas and maintenance, is part of the exercise.

Middle-school students often don’t have incomes but teachers can help them see that they have birthday money from grandparents, allowance and occasional payment for baby-sitting or lawn mowing.

For children in elementary school, a book called “Patty’s Pet Hamster” helps them learn how to save money for a pet.

In a small breakout session, Mila Tappan of FAME described the activities she uses as she travels to schools around the state conducting one-day lessons in financial literacy. From the book “Pretty Penny Sets Up Shop” for the early grades to a plastic wheel game called “Get A Life” that middle and high school students can use to line up career goals, wages and lifestyle expectations, she said students easily can be engaged in learning about finance.

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