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The Case for Teaching Financial Literacy in Economics Class (Personal Finance Series Pt. 1)

Look, I get it. I totally get it. You only get one semester to teach your high schoolers about economics. That’s all you get to teach your students some of the most relevant, life-altering information they’ll likely learn in high school. And in that jam-packed curriculum map, there’s just no room for personal finance. And anyways, personal finance isn’t even in the economics field, strictly speaking. It’s finance!

And yet…it doesn’t really fit into any other subjects either. Sure, there’s math class, but that’s usually got a pretty set curriculum and students are in all different grade levels and might not even get to certain levels and so that doesn’t really work. It certainly doesn’t fit in with science or English or history. So it’s up to you, my friend. If it’s not offered anywhere else at your school, financial literacy most belongs in the economics classroom.

And really, what better way to teach students about the limited nature of resources than to have them make a budget for their future selves? That’ll illustrate scarcity and cost-benefit analyses real quick.

What we don’t want is a generation of students leaving high school having never learned anything about personal finance. If they can’t budget or understand how credit cards work, how will they know what traps to look out for or how to avoid a cycle of bad debt? The average American household with credit card debt has about $6,929 in consumer debt alone (NerdWallet). Many of these people believe they’ll never end the cycle of bad debt. But we can prepare and educate the next generation, even if we don’t know everything or have made mistakes in our past. In fact, I believe making mistakes can make you a better teacher of personal finance than someone who’s done everything perfectly. (More on this in a future blog post.)

So let’s take a little time and address the major objections to teaching personal finance in the secondary economics classroom.

What about parents? Shouldn’t they be the ones teaching their kids about finances? You know, I’ve taught personal finance through a semester-long project for about 4 years now (check it out here if you’re interested).  During that time, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon. In my experience, only 2 or 3 kids in a class of 30 have ever had a real conversation with their parents about finances, budgeting, and/or managing money in general. It’s super strange, but most kids tell me they’re either too afraid to ask or their parents seem tight-lipped. So from my experience, I’m pretty convinced that a majority of parents don’t prepare their kids for budgeting or explicitly teach them about financial literacy. Like so many things in school, if parents aren’t teaching it, it’s probably a good idea for us teachers to get to work and fill in the gaps.

(Side note: As part of my Personal Finance Project, I have my students interview their parents about finances. For some reason, when it’s a school assignment, parents and students feel more comfortable having the conversation.)

What if I waste my time teaching these concepts and they’re ineffective in helping students? Yeah, I’ve heard this question many a time. In fact, I’ve read quite a few articles recently that personal finance is ineffective for high school students because it’s boring or doesn’t seem important to them so they forget the principles.

Can I be a critic here for a moment? When I hear things like this, I have to wonder how the financial literacy was being taught in the case study schools. Was it some bank representative droning on and on about interest rates? Was it some dry worksheet students filled out? Did it require any critical thinking on the part of the student?

Look, like most things in teaching, it all comes down to how you teach the material. The difference between interesting and uninteresting topics is a matter of opinion. Therefore, it’s all in the presentation. And the best way to get students excited about finances is to make it about them. That’s right, have them make every single decision. Have them, with your guidance, do the research and find their future housing and look for diverse health care plans. If it’s about them and it’s relevant, it’s going to be inherently interesting to students. Like everyone else, they love making things personalized.

Without fail, every year my seniors tell me that my class was the most relevant and helpful for their futures. They thank me for my Personal Finance Project. They feel less scared of money and more in control of their future finances. They know what they want their futures to look like and what their financial goals are. They see how quickly money disappears when you’ve got bills to pay on a starting salary. And they get it. They get what I’m trying to teach them and they remember it years later when they come back to visit me. It’s more than worth our time to teach.

What if I truly, honestly don’t have time to teach personal finance? Make it homework. Boom. Done. Look, I know homework can be a dirty word in education and it might seem overwhelming for seniors who are taking more APs than is probably healthy. And to be honest, I’m not usually a fan of homework either (I barely give any to my history classes). But here’s the thing: you can make it work. Break assignments up to be small, requiring little time to complete. Give them time to work on the assignments during small chunks of extra class time. Get them interested in the assignments and start them in class- and then have students finish at home. It’s okay. We don’t have to overwhelm them. We just need to educate them.

What if I don’t know enough about personal finance to teach it to high schoolers? Let me tell you a little secret. Lean in close- it’s one I didn’t know until I was well into adulthood. Here it is: nobody knows what they’re doing. Seriously. I had no idea what I was doing my first few years of teaching. No idea. Yet my students learned, I wasn’t fired, and I improved drastically from year to year. I made mistakes, misspoke, had to correct myself regularly, apologized when I messed up, and grew. And you know what else? If you’re a functioning adult, you probably know more about personal finance than you realize. Google “parts of a budget” and get your students started in researching each part. Because as Rachel Hollis always says, in an age of this much free information online, being ignorant is a choice. So maybe take the time to learn alongside your students so you can be better for next year’s students (not to mention get your own life on track). In part 2 and the last part of this 5-part series, I’ll go more in depth on how I address this issue, but for now just rest assured that it’ll be okay. It’s okay to need a moment to research the answer to a student’s question. It’s okay to not know. Because you’re a human.

Have any other questions I’ve not addressed yet? Let me know in the comments. And stay tuned for the “hows” of teaching personal finance every Wednesday in January.

With love,

Mrs. P

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