Kids Get Money-Smart

Participating in Finance Park, a financial education program for children, Maddie Vance holds up a card that lets her add to her budget for spending on basics such as utilities and food.
Participating in Finance Park, a financial education program for children, Maddie Vance holds up a card that lets her add to her budget for spending on basics such as utilities and food. (By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)
By Margaret Webb Pressler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 15, 2007

Tina Vance, a Chantilly stay-at-home mother of four, has been working hard at giving her family a financial education. She makes the kids, ages 4 to 14, contribute 10 percent of their allowances to savings and charity and she includes them in discussions of household finances. Vance heard nothing from her own parents about money or their financial situation, but she laid it all out for her children.

She used Monopoly money.

"I put a pile on the table equal to one month of my husband's salary. I also got out the cable bill, the phone bill, the Giant receipts, everything we had paid for that month," she said. "We went around the table, and each kid took a turn paying a bill. After all the bills were paid, there wasn't much left."

At a time when many Americans are unwise with their money -- piling up debt, overspending on credit cards, saving too little and taking on risky mortgages -- there is a growing awareness that children need to be taught what their parents don't know. If kids learn more about money, the thinking goes, they won't make the same mistakes.

It's not only parents who are worried about the temptations young people face -- it's also the financial institutions that will need those children as customers in the future. Banks, investment firms and credit unions are spending an increasing amount of time and money on programs and Web sites that teach kids the ABCs of money management. Both A.G. Edwards and Wells Fargo have recently unveiled online games that allow kids to role play and learn about personal finance and banking.

"They have a cradle-to-grave marketing strategy," said Eli Jones, a marketing professor at the University of Houston and an industry consultant. "If they can create responsible spending and investing at an early age, then they're building a customer for life."

Money-management education is also taking off in the nonprofit realm, as child-focused organizations increasingly stress the importance of financial responsibility. And then there is the growing stream of money-wise DVDs, toys and books -- some aimed at youngsters just out of diapers.

"Most kids, all they know is spending," said Lori Mackey, founder of Prosperity4Kids, which created and sells a system for parents to teach children about saving and investing. "We have to help them understand that when you invest your money, it will be there in the future for you, and it will grow into huge amounts of money. And when you tell them that, they get all excited."

Organized Instruction

Many parents know they need to do more to impart financial wisdom to their kids but want some help from outside organizations, such as banks or nonprofit groups.

Islyn Nieves of Dumfries has been trying to turn her financial mistakes into an advantage for her 13-year-old son, Juan. Whenever he gets his allowance from his father, she explains to him the folly of blowing it on comic books or Yu-Gi-Oh! cards. But she wants to do more. Nieves, who is in the Army Reserve, is thinking of getting her son a debit card through USAA to track his allowance and give him a better understanding of what the card means.

"He thinks, 'I have a credit card, so I have money,' " she said. "I'm trying to explain to him that it's not the same thing."

Vance was thrilled when her oldest child, Maddie, participated in a pilot program at school that gave her class 25 hours of intensive personal finance and budgeting instruction. Called Finance Park, the program was created by Junior Achievement, a nonprofit organization dedicated to training kids for professional success. In recent years, JA has been focusing more on teaching kids how to be financial successes. Its Finance Park model includes hands-on learning through role playing of real-life scenarios, along with classroom lessons.

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