For me, high school is a foggy memory without much detail. I remember attending classes, doing extracurricular activities, and going to graduation. As for the actual class content…um. Yeah.
The educational curriculum requirements in most schools include several years of math, science, and physical education. You remember the gym shorts, right? P.E. class was required throughout all four years of high school for nearly every student: hot afternoons spent anxiously waiting to get picked for a dodgeball team, doing laps around the track, and roughing your way through a round of basketball. Everyone got moving in some way (however awkwardly), and learned the importance of leading an active, healthy lifestyle through lived experience. The more physical activity we got, the more energy and clarity we had in our lives outside the gymnasium.
This idea was hammered into us, from grade school all the way through high school, with mandatory gym class. Food pyramids were hung across the walls in the lunchroom. Get your daily fruit serving! Make sure to eat your vegetables!
With all those years of required physical activity and lessons on food servings, you’d think most people would carry those (initially enforced) lifestyle choices into adulthood. Going to the gym every week, eating proportionate servings and necessary nutrients.
But people don’t. In fact, most people don’t meet the bare minimum of weekly physical exercise and daily nutritional servings — people dread going to the gym, enjoy their junk food, or simply don’t care enough to get active, despite the proven benefits of exercise. Despite learning constructive habits throughout childhood, people often let these life-transforming practices fall to the bottom of their list of “adult” priorities.
I think personal finance works the same way: even though the techniques for healthy money management are small and simple, and even though we learn a few things early on (put your allowance in the piggy bank instead of spending it at the candy store), we let personal finance stuff — saving, budgeting, etc — fall to the bottom of our To Do lists.
People want to be better with their money. They want to have financial freedom: no debt weighing them down, free from waiting on baited breath for each paycheck to arrive. Student loan debt is at an all-time high, credit card payments creep up every month with added interest, and housing costs are soaring. 47% of Americans wouldn’t be able to cover a $400 emergency without resorting to credit cards or selling things. The college class of 2016 graduated with an average of over $37,000 in student debt. There is a national struggle with money; it’s something too many of us are going through.
A big, contributing problem to this phenomenon is our lack of financial literacy. Unlike nationally-mandated P.E. class enforcing the values of exercise and nutrition, Americans have never had any set place to learn more about the ramifications of taking out student loans and understanding interest rates. We never took a standardized exam on stocks and risk allocation. We didn’t learn about compound interest until we were paying it off on our credit cards, or realizing that we’d missed the chance to earn that interest on a retirement fund we didn’t start early enough.
Right now, the responsibility of learning about personal finance is placed on the individual. We, and we alone, are the ones who are going to figure out how to make a budget, save for retirement, and discover if credit cards are really that evil, after all (who knew they could actually be great things to have?). After getting familiar with different money management topics (and realizing how simple some of them are), many people turn around and wonder why this sort of information is not being taught in school.
We use money every day, after all, and it’s a tool that’s essential to reaching many of our life goals. In theory, educating elementary or high school students nationwide to increase financial literacy among the masses would improve people’s standard of living, reduce debt default, and would even help tame the student loan crisis. Personal finance affects everyone’s life and the economy as a whole. So it should be taught in schools, right?
Nope. At least, I don’t think so.
By its very nature, personal finance is personal. It’s not a cut-and-dry subject like math or science. Teaching it through school worksheets and quizzes — with abstract numbers for wages and utility bills — wouldn’t be an applicable way for students to learn about money. Why? So much of personal finance is based in behavior, in habit-building. People can only seek out and refine these habits when they are emotionally invested in improving themselves on a personal, individual, practical level. How do you teach that?
Would the class be about the basics of saving and building a budget? Would it be a semester-long sales pitch about the value of attending a four-year college right after high school? Maybe teens could be pushed to relate more to their futures through retirement planning: older adults could stand at the front of the class with terror-filled eyes, chanting at the students to contribute to their 401Ks. Or, why not just teach all the basic topics at once? The class syllabus could include budgeting methods, compound interest, investing, risk allocation, credit scores, opportunity cost, and debt management. The important stuff to know about while treading the path to financial independence.
In order to get the full range of personal finance topics covered, teachers would probably resort to abstract word problems, charts, and rote memorization. And we know how much students are going to retain that sort of information (I mean, c’mon: How much do you remember from your high school economics course?). Beyond the ephemeral half-life of these teachings, it’s also worth noting that only one in five instructors feels confident teaching personal finance.
For any of this theoretical personal finance class to be useful, its lessons would need to be rooted in real-world applicable scenarios. While I think 16-year-olds would find saving strategies useful (wait, I can grow that cash from my summer job into more cash?), I’m not sure many would connect with an in-depth discussion about different types of stocks, bonds, and investing strategies.
I’m not discounting the immense value that personal finance learning brings to people and their livelihoods. Everyone should grow up learning about ways to budget, save, invest, and more. And I think personal finance workshops, events, and talks could be valuable things for kids. I just don’t think implementing an official, nationally-mandated personal finance class within the public school system would be the wonderfully great be-all cure people think it would.
Personal finance is complex and nuanced and entirely dependent on personal circumstances: income, etc. Emotion plays a big part in the desire to learn and practice it. In order to teach it at the school level — to the variety of students who come through the halls — the teaching topics would have to be broken down to the abstract basics. While basic things like budgeting and saving could be taught, the interconnected nature of different financial habits isn’t something that easily lends itself to being taught in a uniform, single-source manner. And we all know (or at least, our the fogginess of our high school memories should tell us) that abstract, basic lessons in a personal field of study aren’t super beneficial.
Colin is a communications professional currently teaching English in Thailand. He is on Instagram and writes about personal finance and self-development at Rebelwithaplan.com.
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