Last week -- while reading Karen Blumenthal's article in The Wall Street Journal, "Is There a Cure for Financial Literacy?" -- I was reminded of one of the impediments to improving financial literacy in our country. Citing data from The Jumpstart Coalition, Karen reminds us that only three states currently mandate personal-finance courses. This is certainly too small a number and I have a few hypotheses as to why.
I'm not convinced that I've seen a significant nationwide push by educators to mandate such curriculum. Clearly, no one could actually think that mandating personal finance courses in our schools is a bad thing. I would also like to believe everyone would rank money education on the top of the importance list. Let's face it, everyone -- whether they are worth $10 or $10 million -- will need to have a foundation of money knowledge. We all need to deal with money in some way, shape or form. In short, money is not a topic that can be avoided or escaped.
A few educators I've spoken with shared that they do think it's a good idea, but the money is just not there to make it happen. I understand the reality of school budgets does not allow for everything to get into the curriculum. My next question would logically follow: should we consider a reallocation of existing dollars to be refocused toward formal financial literacy in our classrooms. I hear the chants now: "Join the club and get in line."
Maybe we just have a difference of opinion as to where financial literacy falls on the priority list. Certainly English is important; math is vitally important, too. I'd like to think that money-skills should make the top five list. Here's why...
We know our children are absolutely, positively, without a doubt, going to need to interact with money (save, spend, donate and invest!) in their future -- from managing income made at summer jobs to helping pay for college, and in life beyond the classroom. Indeed, there is a higher probability that they will need to use money knowledge more than the skills learned in many of their other classes. I just can't understand why we wouldn't be able to find the money, or reallocate money, so that children can walk into their respective colleges and have a basic understanding of their own personal finances.
After further discussion with these educators I think I've uncovered part of the challenge. Could it be that educators don't themselves feel comfortable with their own personal money skills; thus they feel they aren't in a position to try and teach this to others? We all can certainly appreciate the apprehension to avoid topics we are not comfortable with. Could this be the stumbling block that allows the absurd statistic of only three of 50 states having mandatory money skills curriculum?
I would recommend we simplify things a bit and talk more about the behavioral aspects of managing one's finances that lead to either success or failure of one's financial plan. As much as we would like to think the panacea to all financial planning woes is choosing the right "home run" mutual fund, the reality is the most important variable separating success versus failure in the retirement preparation game is one's propensity to save.
The bottom line: if you save, you'll accumulate the dollars necessary to enjoy a secure retirement. If not, you will be scrambling to continue to make money so you can live.
Therefore, learning to save (and thus budgeting, a technique which allows you to save) is the key. Clearly this is a concept teachers could get comfortable speaking on and could easily work into numerous lesson plans. By simplifying the subject matter to the concept of saving, we eliminate the concern teachers might be having on the topic and simultaneously teach our children the single most valuable lesson that will be crucial to their financial well-being in the future.
Tom Henske, a Westport resident and partner with Lenox Advisors, a wealth management firm with offices in New York City and Stamford, developed the Lenox Money-Smart Kids Program in conjunction with MassMutal Financial Group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org