How real educators are teaching personal finance in the classroom

From pre-K through high school, how teachers find financial literacy success in the classroom

For years, I’ve been a broken record (or maybe a really catchy earworm) on this point: Financial education should be required in our schools. Fortunately, as I’ve written recently, the winds of change are blowing, with an increasing number of states adding financial literacy to their curriculum standards.

Of course, that’s the macro view. We personal finance types prefer to go micro, so I reached out to some supersmart educators on the ground to hear about the success they’re having teaching students about money. Here’s how they’re doing the work that so badly needs to be done.

Erica Piper (Galveston, Texas): One fundamental lesson

I met Piper last year when I was speaking to the Texas Association for the Education of Young Children. As a preschool teacher, she focuses on the financial literacy basics.

Recently, she had her young charges work together to create a list of needs (like food and clothes) and wants (like toys) in their lives. “The next day we revisited the topic,” Piper said, “and I asked the kids to share what they remembered about needs and wants. They were then invited to add to the prior day’s list.” The kids not only recalled the concept, they were able to build on it.

Piper then wove the concept into other lessons. “I would point out how they would sometimes use need and want interchangeably,” she explained. “For example, if a child said they needed an art supply, I would ask, ‘Do you need it or want it?’”

Soon, Piper began to notice her students asking each other throughout the day, “Do you need it or want it?” They had internalized the wants vs. needs game, and learned a valuable distinction in the process.

The difference between stuff we must have and stuff that’s optional may sound basic, but it’s not necessarily so to small children—and understanding how to prioritize is a key stepping stone on the way to being a money-savvy adult.

Samantha Selikoff and Kim Blackadar (Rockaway, N.J.): The in-between years

Life gets more complicated after preschool. In the next several years, kids—especially tweens—start to establish independent financial lives. Yet much of the focus of American finlit curriculum is on the high school years, as teens approach the adult realities of paying for school and joining the workforce.

Educators in New Jersey are bridging the gap: The state passed a mandate for middle-school financial education in 2019, becoming just the second to do so.

Samantha Selikoff, who teaches fourth through eighth grades, is incorporating the new standards into her Creativity, Innovation, and Design classes in Rockaway, N.J.

“Students need to see a connection [to real life] right away,” Selikoff said. “They aren’t hesitant to ask, ‘Why are we learning this?’”

Giving kids the opportunity to think about real-world financial scenarios keeps them engaged, Selikoff has found. It all starts when students create a “Future Self” presentation. “They think about what they want to be when they grow up,” she said, but also about the choices they’ll make with money, like what kind of car they want. This strengthens the connection between saving money and how much things cost.

Kids dive into the business side of finlit with an entrepreneurship program run by Selikoff’s colleague Kim Blackadar, who helps them plan a company. The program culminates in an event in which students hawk real products they’ve created, such as comic book magnets, rubber band bracelets, and designer Mason jars. “They work with supply and demand, expense, profit, inventory, and sales,” Blackadar said. “They also learn leadership skills, gain confidence and self-esteem, and understand and feel self-motivation”—all fundamentals of future success, as workers and earners.

The Garden State’s middle-school curriculum also taps online resources to help students simulate real financial decision-making, including Next Gen Personal Finance’s Payback, a choose-your-own-adventure game that takes players through the financial judgments that students make before and during college.

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This gamification has been, well, a game-changer. “Students ask to play outside of class,” Selikoff said. “It makes it fun, and they don’t realize how much content they’ve consumed by the end of the class. They go home and they’re playing these as if they’re video games.”

Selikoff said that students really appreciate how relatable online simulators can be. “They make it real-world and real-life,” she said. “They’re seeing those connections right away.”

Ruben Rivera (Bronx, N.Y.): Dealing with underlying issues for teens

Teaching money skills to high schoolers in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the nation means contending with challenges beyond the classroom—among them hunger, poverty, and homelessness. It’s key for teachers to understand those challenges, and how they shape a young person’s outlook about money, said Ruben Rivera, who for years oversaw a robust financial literacy program for the predominantly low-income, minority student population at Bronx High School of Business and other schools.

“Ask any teacher in the South Bronx, and they will tell you that it’s a demanding demographic,” Rivera said. “Not because the students can’t or don’t want to learn, but because they deal with challenges that impede their learning.”

As Rivera has found, however, “they have smarts that are, at times, not found in books. They need to find creative ways to survive on minimal resources.”

Take a lesson he taught on budgeting for groceries. The task, as Rivera recalled, was for his students to figure out how to use $20 to buy four lunches based on specials at the local deli: a pound of ham for $8, a pound of cheese for $6, condiments for $4, and so on.

Looking at the $20 budget, one student piped up: “Mr. Rivera, that’s too much money. I could buy lunch for a week on half that amount.”

Rivera invited the young man to the front of the class to explain.

“I don’t need all that ham and cheese,” he explained to the class. “What I would do is buy $2.50 worth of ham and $2.50 worth of cheese. They sell rolls at my local bodega for 25 cents each. And I don’t need condiments, because my local McDonalds has free mustard, salt, and pepper.”

On the board, the student’s math showed he needed just $6 to pay for the four meals.

“With $20,” the student concluded, “I could buy enough for 12 ham-and-cheese sandwiches and still have money left over to save.”

Rivera was impressed. And even more important, he learned how crucial it is to understand his pupils’ circumstances and environment if he wants to reach them. “That student got an A,” he remembers.

Rivera, who began teaching finlit nearly a decade ago, recently joined the Council for Economic Education, a financial education organization that helped prepare him to teach the subject back when he was starting out. “I loved teaching finance,” Rivera said, “and the resources I received here paved the way to make me an effective teacher.”

One measure of that effectiveness comes from the feedback he gets from his former students. “One recently sent me a text message thanking me for a tax lesson I shared with her eight years ago,” Rivera said. “As an adult, she now does her and her family members’ taxes.”

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