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A Financial Time-Out With High School Students

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Notebook_Raul_Esquivel_CCFlickrHigh school students are a tough crowd. This afternoon I stopped by Essex Street Academy, a public high school on the Lower East Side in Manhattan, to give a brief talk about money to an auditorium filled with 350 juniors and seniors.  I wasn’t given any parameters, just forty-five minutes and knowledge that most students at Essex Street do graduate and attend college. I came armed with PowerPoint slides, questions for the audience and candy. Lots of candy.

Here’s what we know about high school students and financial literacy. Most couldn’t tell you, for example, what APR stands for, the definition of a 401k plan or how health insurance works.  In fact, the financial literacy of high school students has fallen to its lowest level ever, with a score of just 48.3%, according to the JumpStart Coalition.  With just 45 minutes to spare, I was not going to be able to change all of that. So rather than offering a standard lecture on compound interest or the perils of debt, I took a Socratic approach, asking students a series of analytical questions with no right or wrong answer pertaining to their feelings and attitudes about money.  (The reward for participating was candy and chocolate, of course.) What does rich mean to you? When you think of money, how does it make you feel? Can money buy happiness? I asked.  Students were quick to respond and had clear financial convictions, evidence that they’ve all developed some real perceptions about money and are able to think somewhat critically about a concept that is pretty abstract.

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Students’ answers ran the spectrum, representing various personal histories with and exposures to money. One student admitted money makes her happy, while another said it makes her sad. To some rich meant being alone and one student even said being rich makes you confused because you have too many choices to make with your money. He referenced Donald Trump as an example of a confused millionaire.

Yes, high schoolers are hilarious.

My other approach was all about shock and awe. Did you know that most NBA and NFL players go bankrupt or enter financial turmoil after retiring? I asked. Jaws dropped. Did you know that money leads to happiness? That’s right. Up to $75,000. After that there’s no correlation. Did you know that most millionaires in this country pay $10 for a bottle of wine and $16 for a haircut? Rich women also prefer to shop at Ann Taylor and Nine West. No Manolo Blahniks for this affluent bunch. Whoa. Perception, they learned, is not always reality.

And the more they listened and shared their ideas, the better students were able to understand and articulate their viewpoints about money—a big step toward becoming financially literate.  Yes, all that in just 45 minutes. Talking about money is something very few high schools dedicate time for in the classrooms. Maybe we just need to mandate 20 minute money “Time-Outs” during the week when students can just voice their thoughts, their concerns and wisdom about money with another. This afternoon it proved a healthy exercise—albeit a bit raucous at times.  Thanks goodness for those Blow Pops.

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Image: Raul Esquivel, via Flickr.com

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