Students Are Learning Habits Their Parents May Not Have Mastered

By Maria Glod


Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 22, 2006;

There’s a bank in Nate Folger’s elementary school. A real one. Never mind that the teller is a fifth-grader and many deposits come from tooth fairy funds — it’s one way a nation of non-savers and big spenders is trying to teach the next generation to do better at finances.

It might be working: Nate, 10, recently plunked a rumpled $5 bill onto the counter of the new Sunrise Savings Bank and walked away with a deposit slip.

He earns about $4 a week in allowance — for setting the table and putting his clothes away — but he has a plan.

"It’s pretty tempting to spend," Nate said. "But every week I’m going to deposit $2 and keep $2 so I can watch it grow and grow and grow."

Sunrise Valley Elementary School Principal Beth English hopes that banking in school will make saving money second nature to Nate and his classmates. She watches them proudly carry checks that grandparents tucked into birthday cards and plastic baggies stuffed with pennies and deposit them in the bank, a school branch of

Northern Virginia’s Cardinal Bank with no minimum balance.

"Habits like brushing your teeth, those are developed early," English said. "I want them to learn the benefits of savings for their own stability, their own security, their own independence. A very small number of Americans are saving. Even among my adult friends, it’s not a habit they’ve developed."

English sees the ABCs of personal finance as essential to today’s classrooms, and she is not alone. With savings rates falling and personal bankruptcies on the rise, educators and policymakers are beginning to insist that the basics of money management and, above all, the importance of saving, become part of school offerings.

Last year, Virginia lawmakers mandated that economics and financial literacy be taught in middle and high schools. Beginning next year, students will learn about online shopping, creating a budget, identity theft and even how to decide whether a rebate or discount is really a good deal. Legislators in Texas and South Carolina recently passed similar laws.

The Maryland State Department of Education is developing lessons on personal finance that cover such topics as health insurance selection, retirement planning and credit card management.

This is against the backdrop of a U.S. savings rate that is the lowest it’s been since the 1930s, an uncertain future for Social Security and the gradual demise of pension plans that have been a mainstay for aging Americans for generations.

Education groups and financial institutions, such as banks and credit unions, have stepped up to offer instruction.

Operation Hope Inc., a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization working against poverty, operates Banking on Our Future, which teaches kids money management basics, at 20 schools in the District and Virginia.

Banks and credit unions open branches at such schools as Sunrise Valley in Reston and allow students to work as tellers and managers.

"Kids are the obvious targets to reach," said Dan Iannicola Jr., who as deputy assistant secretary for financial education at the Treasury Department visits classrooms to talk about the benefits of saving. (In one lesson, he gives children a piece of candy at the start of class. They are allowed to eat it, but if they choose to wait until class ends, they get a second piece.) "As early as their teens or their twenties, they can get into trouble, and it can take a lifetime to get out of it."

Programs sponsored by financial institutions and nonprofit groups provide teaching materials and introduce students to financial professionals. That benefits schools, but banks benefit, too, according to Barbara O’Neill, a personal finance professor at Rutgers University. They build loyalty in the next generation of customers.

"The cons are you are exposing kids to branding, even though it may not be overt," O’Neill said.

Stephen Brobeck, of the District-based Consumer Federation of America, said schools should vet the teaching materials produced by financial corporations to make sure they are high quality. His litmus test is to glance at the credit card lesson to see if it clearly advises youngsters to pay off the entire balance each month.

"If the materials are really good and the branding is limited, we won’t object," Brobeck said. "If it’s a good program, they ought to get some credit for it."

More advanced lessons discuss the nuts and bolts of finance: certificates of deposit, stocks and bonds. But for the youngest children, it’s all about attitude.

One recent evening at Little Run Elementary School in Fairfax, Rachel Powell of George Mason University’s Center for Economic Education talked in very simple terms about saving to about 50 students and parents.

"The secret about saving," Powell told them, "is you get to spend later."

She asked students to think of an item they could buy that day if they emptied their piggy banks and something they could buy if they saved. Hands shot up. A football jersey and nail polish were among the "buy nows." The dream purchases: a white Mustang, high-heeled shoes and "the biggest Bionicle in the world." (Bionicles are Lego action figures.)

"If we spend every penny on bubble gum, we’re never going to get the white Mustang," Powell said. The same concept, she said, will apply to smart money management in 15 or 20 years, when they are shopping for cars and houses and considering retirement plans.

"We can’t have everything we want," she said. "That’s something 6-year-olds don’t have any problem wrapping their brains around."

William Crosswait, 11, left the session thinking about the coins in his parking meter-shaped bank. He earns an allowance sorting laundry and doing other chores, but he realized he’d better stop bu
ying Legos if he wants a new skateboard.

"I didn’t know much about money when I came here," William said. "I think I’m definitely going to work on the savings."

This year at Malcolm X Elementary School in the District, students learned about bank accounts and the importance of good credit in the Banking on Our Future program. Volunteers, who can include bankers, accountants and graduate students, meet with students during four hour-long sessions.

Pamela Jones, a school counselor, said she knew the information was sinking in when she overheard students talking next to a vending machine filled with tempting snacks. "I heard children say, ‘I’m not spending my money there — I’m saving it,’ " Jones recalled. "You knew they were getting it."

Marquita Friday, of the Maryland Education Department, said that today’s students face an increasingly complex financial future in which they will have to choose among health insurance and retirement plans. Not to mention credit card offers, which will soon be bombarding them. She said the state is crafting lessons to replace or enhance those in middle school family and consumer science classes.

"Finances are more difficult to manage than they were 15 years ago, so we really want to make sure what we’re doing is current and relevant," Friday said.

Next month, the Virginia Board of Education, in response to the 2005 financial literacy law, will start training teachers to present new money lessons — woven into math, social science and other classes.

Tatevik Markaryan, 10, who arrives early at Sunrise Valley Elementary each Tuesday to work as an assistant bank manager, said she’s learned some basics already. She used to take the cash she earned as a babysitter’s helper to the mall. Now she’ll spend some and save some.

"Sometimes I regret what I spend it on. I think, ‘I spent $20 and all I got was hair things,’ " Tatevik said. "Now I can come to the bank and just put it in instead."

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