When I went to junior high school, back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, we had three required "life skill" courses: hygiene (bodily health and where babies come from); home economics (cooking and sewing, for girls only); and shop (sawing and sanding, for boys only).
They fit the world as we knew it before porn on the Internet, Chinese takeout and television's "This Old House."
In the world as we know it today, kids still need hygiene, although perhaps in the fourth grade. The other skill at the top of my list is money management. Not enough young people have a clue.
Mandated courses of any sort aren't popular with the schools today including courses on life skills.
Fourteen states used to require that students study personal finance, says Dara Duguay, executive director of JumpStart in Washington, D.C., a year-old coalition of organizations promoting the idea. A recent survey shows only seven (Illinois, Florida, Kansas, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia).
Money management is still being taught in other states. But it's usually by local option or as a student elective.
Often, the course is part of a business track, taught only to students not going on to college. College students are left to pick their knowledge out of the air. Only about 10 percent of students learn about personal finance in school, Duguay told my associate, Kate O'Brien Ahlers.
The older generation of educators may not see the point. They grew up when personal finance was easier. Credit cards weren't ubiquitous, employees weren't responsible for their own retirement plans and stock market investing wasn't as common. They learned how to manage money by doing it starting simply and adjusting to innovations as they came along.
But young people today are plunged into a world of options from the first day they walk out of school. Credit cards or debit cards? Buy a car or lease one? Cash value insurance, term insurance or none at all? Which mutual fund for your 401(k)?
Without even rudimentary knowledge, how can they possibly make intelligent choices?
The consequences of ignorance are severe. If you mismanage your bank account, and move, a new bank may not accept you. If you haven't budgeted, a credit card can plunge you into debt. When it comes to money, trial-and-error isn't the best pedagogy.
The schools may think that children should learn about money at home. But parents aren't necessarily the best teachers and even when they are, children may not be inclined to listen. Classroom settings are excellent forums for getting a lesson down.
There's objective evidence that classroom lessons take. People from states that require a personal-finance course in high school save more money as adults than people from other states, according to a study led by economist Douglas Bernheim of Stanford University. They also accumulate more net worth.
"Education may be a powerful tool for stimulating personal saving," Bernheim says.
Personal-finance education doesn't arise by popular demand. Parents may like the idea when they hear about it, but rarely contemplate it otherwise. What gets these courses started is lobbying by interested educators or business groups, or the personal concerns of particular legislators, Bernheim says.
JumpStart will be pressing the states to list personal finance among their educational standards. These standards, found in a majority of states, define what a high school senior should be expected to know. Although standards aren't mandates, they describe material that schools are strongly encouraged to teach.
Ideally, students would learn about income and taxes, money management, saving, investing and spending if not in a stand-alone course, then as part of math or economics.
To get this done requires state coalitions that can reach local legislators and school authorities. There are five JumpStart coalitions so far, in California, Georgia, Idaho, New Jersey and North Carolina. Groups are also starting up in Massachusetts, Minnesota, Texas and Washington state.
There's no single curriculum for personal finance. Where it's taught, the schools use different approaches.
Some tuck it into a course known as "family and consumer science," with an appropriate textbook. Others use courses prepared by outside sources such as the High School Financial Planning Program, from the National Endowment for Financial Education in Denver. Or the Personal Finance Series, by the National Council for Economic Education in New York City.
You'll find a central listing of brochures, videotapes and other teaching materials on the Internet, at www.jumpstartcoalition.org.
Government going electronic
Are you receiving payments or benefits from the federal government in the form of paper checks? The Treasury wants to switch you to "direct deposit." With direct payments, the money moves into your bank account electronically.
We're talking here about Social Security, Supplemental Security Income (for low-income seniors), disability, veterans benefits, federal pensions, vendor payments in fact, everything but tax-refund checks.
Starting Jan. 1, everyone who is currently getting paper checks from the government and has a bank account will be encouraged to switch.
Direct deposit has a lot of advantages. No one steals your check from your mailbox. You don't have to mail or carry your check to the bank, or get someone to cash it for you. In the rare event that a deposit goes astray, it can generally be tracked within 24 hours. You don't have to wait 10 days for a missing check to be replaced.
If you love paper checks, however, you will not be forced to accept direct deposit. You can excuse yourself for any reason, says John D. Hawke Jr., the Treasury's undersecretary for domestic finance.
Syndicated columnist Jane Bryant Quinn can be reached in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200.
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