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Mastering The Language Of Personal Finance For Future Generations
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What if, after high school graduation, you were expected to be fluent in a foreign language? But there’s a catch: Your parents don’t speak the language. You never took a class. None of your friends speak it. Maybe you know a few words like “thank you” and “you’re welcome” but otherwise have no real vocabulary or grammar skills.
What if your future financial security depended on the ability to master the language? And what if the cost to you for failing to learn this language was ultimately hundreds of thousands of dollars or more over a lifetime, in actual expenses and lost income opportunities? This is precisely the situation faced by Americans today.
The language is personal finance.
Although they hold hundreds of billions of dollars in purchasing power young adults in large numbers start from scratch when it comes to learning money management. According to a financial literacy research report from the National Bureau of Economic Research:
Teens spend money, but few save for long-term goals
Most teens don’t understand what retirement accounts are or how they work
Most teens don’t understand how credit card fees and interest work
According to the Council for Economic Education, only four states currently require high school students to complete a stand-alone personal finance class prior to graduation. The states are Missouri, Tennessee, Utah and Virginia. Seventeen states include personal finance instruction as part of required classes. Six states test students’ personal finance knowledge before graduation (Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Michigan, Missouri, Texas). The vast majority of young adults in this nation enter the financial world unprepared.
Where are the parents?
For many young adults, the knowledge isn’t passed on by their parents because the parents never received any instruction either. You can’t give what you don’t have. Parents who lack confidence in their level of knowledge of basic finances (risk management, investing, debt and so on) rightfully feel intimidated by or uncomfortable about the prospect of teaching those topics to their kids. But parents do pass along their financial habits, good or bad, whether they realize it or not.
Experts agree that a few assignments or a one-semester course are not enough. True financial literacy must be taught on an ongoing basis, from an early age.
The first step for state legislators is to write laws and regulations mandating integration of personal finance education in public schools. At least 20 states have done so. The next step is funding. To that end, some federal funding is available and several states now allocate all or a portion of certain fees and taxes to financial education programs. Big money also comes from the private sector. Visa, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Discover Financial Services and PNC Financial Services are among the corporations known to be investing tens of millions of dollars in children’s financial literacy programs.
Personal finance must be part of the daily conversation at home, too. No matter what their level of knowledge, parents should encourage conversation and questions about money management. Self-reflection is key. Bad financial habits must be acknowledged before any change can take place. And the best instruction will come when parents practice what they preach.
Without family involvement, solid financial expertise will be difficult to achieve on a national level. Parents who learned money management the hard way, who want to give their children more financial awareness than they themselves had and have, and who want to improve their own level of expertise will find ample resources if they look.
President Obama’s Advisory Council for Financial Capability developed two excellent websites:
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