Financial literacy on my mind

I’ve been trying to learn about effective ways other people have come up with to teach financial literacy to youths, and this brought me back to how my parents taught me about money management. Each of my parents, I realize, taught me different lessons that still guide me today.

My financial prudence is something my dad instilled in me. Even now, when we talk, he asks me if I’m “watching my finances.” I can’t remember a time when he’s given me money without issuing his trademark bidding: “Don’t spend it all!” I’ve taken his advice so much to heart that I actually have to work through a lot of guilt before spending money on little luxuries.

Although my dad has probably influenced my financial habits the most, he was never the type to walk me through any kind of lesson. That was my stepdad’s domain. Just as he was the one who taught me how to play all kinds of card and board games and how to swim, he was also the parent who showed me the nuts and bolts of managing my finances. I have a distinct memory of my stepfather sitting me down and showing me how to write a check, balance my checkbook, and use an ATM. Although I’d grown up with a bank account for keeping money I received on birthdays and holidays, I consider my first real bank account the one I opened in high school. It was, admittedly, mostly funded by my parents, but through it I learned how to keep regular track of my credits and debits.

The lesson I learned from my mom is that there are certain things in life worth splurging on, but there have to be cutbacks in other areas. Since she was a little girl (constantly making and selling things to friends and neighbors) she would save up for something she wanted—clothes, music—and if it was particularly expensive, she would forgo other things. Usually this means eating cheaper meals. I developed the same habit when I first moved to New York City. I packed my own lunches daily so I could afford to eat out at fancy restaurants once a month. From my mom, then, I learned always to ask these two questions jointly: What do you want to spend on? and What are you willing to cut back on?

It wasn’t till I got to college that I started realizing—and am still realizing now—that these lessons were indeed lessons, and that many other people grow up with other kinds of lessons or no lessons at all. I remember one of my college friends telling me that she was just learning how to balance a checkbook because no one had ever taught her how. Another friend confessed that his family used to be poor, and that even though he lives a comfortable middle class life now, he still battles with many views and habits associated with the “culture of poverty” (he’s an anthropologist and is wont to talk in those terms). When I lived in Buenos Aires a friend told me that because of Argentina’s period of hyperinflation, very few people have a habit of saving money (or trusting banks, for that matter).

I think there is a tendency among financially secure or wealthy people to misunderstand or simply ignore the structural causes of poverty. Why can’t ‘they’ save money? Why do ‘they’ keep buying things or living beyond their means? I’m coming to understand that you can’t approach a financial literacy program assuming that the concepts and values that seem so transparent and obvious to you are shared by others, because they aren’t. I’d like to devote a couple more posts (perhaps feature a guest post!) about some of the obstacles educators encounter when teaching financial literacy to young people—especially those who grow up in poverty and/or in unstable family environments.

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3 thoughts on “Financial literacy on my mind

  1. Have you ever heard of Minisociety? That was at least what we called it in 4th grade, I think it’s a national curriculum idea. Basically our class created a country and ran it for a year–the focus was on economics. We created a currency and had markets where we made, marketed, and sold products and services to each other. We had to deal with personal economic management and macro issues like inflation. It was too simple for older teenagers, but I wonder if there are adaptations for older students. Also, have you heard of Opportunity Network (OppNet)? It’s a program for (quoting NYer piece) “providing disadvantaged local high-school students with various forms of social capital: networking skills, e-mail etiquette, access to influential people.” I could see financial literacy and other aims of yours falling in with that mission.

  2. One other personal observation: I think that urban poverty in the US is different than, say, traditional images of poverty, because lower-income families in this country often have very “nice” things, if by things we mean clothes, technological gadgets etc. Thanks to cheap imports, the cost of TVs, food, cell phones, bling have dropped insanely in the last 30 years, to the point where they are low enough to be accessible to most consumers. The cost of education, real estate etc.–the things which are less visible but which actually lead to moving out of structural poverty rather than just appearing wealthier–have skyrocketed. So in some sense it’s not “irrational” that poor people don’t “just save money.” No amount of savings on a low-income job is going to build up $30,000K/yr for private school tuition or a house in an area with good public schools. You might as well get something for your money.

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