Teens learn the value of personal finance education

Sanam Analouei, 14, of Vienna, Va., had never thought about the cost of her extracurricular activities and monthly phone bill. Now, she said, "I realized how much I'm worth every month. And in a family of four, that's a lot."
Sanam Analouei, 14, of Vienna, Va., had never thought about the cost of her extracurricular activities and monthly phone bill. Now, she said, "I realized how much I'm worth every month. And in a family of four, that's a lot." The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — In the summer of 2008, Jacob Karlin, currently a senior at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Md., scored his first job: selling doughnuts on the boardwalk in Ocean City, Md.

But it wasn't long before the manager gathered the staff. "We can't afford to keep most of you," he said. Just like that, Karlin was unemployed.

He tried to find another job with no luck. "A lot of teens couldn't find jobs," Karlin recalls. "And I thought, 'Well, that's the recession at work right there.' "

Meanwhile, his father's small insurance company also started losing clients, forcing the family to become more frugal. "When our parents are worrying, that transfers onto us," Karlin says.

According to a 2011 study commissioned by Charles Schwab, 93 percent of teens ages 16 to 18 say their families have been affected by the recession. Because of that, young people's attitudes toward money have begun to change. According to the Schwab study, high percentages say they are more grateful for what they have and are less likely to ask for things they want today than in 2007.

Coming of age in the Great Recession has made students more aware of financial concerns, but it hasn't provided them the tools to be more financially responsible.

Educators have recognized this, and in September, Virginia became the fourth state (alongside Tennessee, Utah and Missouri) to implement a mandatory class in personal finance and economics for all incoming freshmen. And Maryland just became one of 21 states to adopt an "integrated" approach to teaching these subjects, folding them into social studies and math.

Still, it's unclear whether these various approaches to financial education will make kids more responsible than their parents. "We need to see much more education and research to know what's effective," says Laura Levine, president and chief executive of Jump$tart, an umbrella organization that publishes the national standards for personal finance education. "This is a very young discipline."

For a number of years, a version of a personal finance and economics class has been offered as an elective in Fairfax County. Now, the Virginia Board of Education has identified 18 standards, or economic concepts, which all incoming freshmen must learn before they graduate.

Some schools are teaching economics and personal finance as separate courses. Others have combined them. Topics include budgeting, banking, credit, insurance, taxes, saving, investing, buying/leasing a vehicle and inheritance.

Only a handful of the students in this year's class being taught at Marshall High School in Falls Church, Va., are freshmen; students say most kids don't know about the requirement. Freshman Will Ferguson, 15, signed up early at the urging of his mom, who wanted him to learn about money management.

Today, Ferguson is talking like a seasoned stockbroker.

"Home Depot's on a high right now and is still going up a little bit," he says. The stock was one of three that Ferguson chose to follow for a class assignment.

Ferguson says the class has changed the way he thinks about spending.

"At the movies, I used to get popcorn and a drink and the ticket, all of which is $25. Now, I'm just getting the ticket," he says. "I'm looking at prices."

Before she took PFE, freshman Sanam Analouei, 14, had never thought about the cost of her extracurricular activities and monthly cell phone bill — not to mention her basic necessities. "I realized how much I'm worth every month," she says. "And in a family of four, that's a lot of money. I can't believe my dad has to pay for all that."

"The en masse marketing tools didn't exist when we were young," says Edward Grenier, president and chief executive of Junior Achievement of Greater Washington, an area program that promotes financial literacy. "But today young people are bombarded."

Grenier says financial literacy is fundamentally about making informed choices. "By the time marketers start creeping into kids' lives, they should have a backdrop of knowledge — know the difference between a want versus a need. Waiting until high school to do this is too late."

Kids' relationship to money is complicated. You wouldn't expect most high schoolers to consider the difference in price between a burrito from Chipotle and the cost of a homemade sandwich. But you might not expect them to become visibly sheepish or even guilty when they do. Kids are poised to take these money issues to heart, but the question is: What is the best way to prepare them?

To be sure, the new financial curriculum teaches useful skills, such as how to read a W-2 form and write a check. But some educators are concerned that this classroom work is too abstract.

"When we have students sit there and try to memorize a lot of terms, they'll think of money management as something for adults," Grenier says. "These concepts need to be brought to life."

Many Virginia schools offer programs in career and technical education, or CTE, where students can earn industry certifications and as many as six college credits in fields including entrepreneurship, cybersecurity, automotive technology and cosmetology. CTE isn't vocational training.

"It's not a school-to-work program, but you get exposed," says Jeff McFarland, who runs the CTE Academy at Marshall. "If you're studying nursing, you can see if blood bothers you," he says.

At Marshall, hotel management students intern at area Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels. Entrepreneurship students are working with Papa Murphy's, a pizza establishment, to develop a new marketing plan. The entrepreneurship students say their classes have provided them a foundation in personal finance and economics, both conceptually and practically.

Students are tasked with starting their own hypothetical companies, which includes writing a detailed business plan, marketing a product, and learning how to take out and manage loans and how to budget.

Ben Pavich, 16, a sophomore at Dominion High School in Sterling, Va., is dressed head to toe in swag from his favorite pro football team, the Indianapolis Colts. Since he signed up for sports and entertainment marketing, he has learned a lot about how companies target consumers. He had never thought of social media as a marketing tool, such as advertisements on Facebook or those QR codes you scan with your smartphone.

"I get mad thinking that I've been duped into doing stupid things because of marketing," Pavich says. "Marketers find these little ways of getting into people's lives."

Ironically, Pavich now wants to become a marketer and influence other people.

"We do teach ethics," says his marketing teacher, Sandra Tucker.

"I want to give customers a good product," Pavich clarifies.

And he knows that marketing can be used not only to sell but also to help others. Through the marketing program, he co-organized a fund-raiser that brought in 600 volunteers to package 40,000 meals for underprivileged Virginians.

As a sophomore, Pavich doesn't have to take the new PFE course. He's happy about this, because the new requirement would make it difficult for him to take other electives, such as AP English, band or another marketing course.

Tucker shares that concern, especially since she has seen a significant increase in CTE enrollment since the recession started. "Personally, my wish would be that the state allowed students to choose the financial literacy course or a CTE course that incorporates those concepts," she says.