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CLUELESS: Personal Finance Course Aims to Teach Students How to Manage their Money

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The world of money comes with an entire complex language of its own. Students usually know and are very familiar with these two phrases, “how much?” or “charge it,” and, with the help of mommy and daddy’s money this is all they need to know.

However, after kids graduate from high school and become young adults, the leash that was held so tight by their parents for all of their life, is suddenly loosened and they are left to fend for themselves in the world of finances. An individual does not usually possess the information needed for financial success and it is not always a matter of common sense.

In order to help students handle their money in the future, Staples has offered a new personal finance course this year, which teaches students a number of things about money. While Staples has been interested in implementing the course for a few years, it was the recent BOE encouragement that pushed the date up to 2010-2011, Lenny Klein, teacher of the personal finance course said.

Klein said that the largest age group in the nation that is accumulating the most debt is the 19-26 year olds. Meaning, students are graduating high school with very little knowledge about how to manage their personal finances.

Especially in Westport, where there is a fair amount of access to money there is no real understanding of certain financial concepts, Sarah White said, another teacher of the course.

Although Staples was crowned as number one high school in Connecticut in 2009, Staples is “Behind the 8 ball,” said Klein, because there is no business department. A number of schools do have a business department and have been offering this course for years now.

The course starts off with a unit on earning wages and ends with budgeting, and its subject’s range from credit cards to student loans.

Even though these topics might not be as relevant in high school, the course prepares students for college as well as post college experiences, White said.

For instance, “balancing a check book I know will be important ten years from now, but I don’t necessarily need the skill at the moment,” Danny Marriot ’11 said.

The goal of the class is to “provide students with a background of financial literacy skills that will ultimately help them manage money and make informed financial decisions in their own lives,” Klein said.

When parents were informed of the new addition to the Staples curriculum they thought it was unbelievable, Klein said.

The class is “aimed at helping people become good financial problem solvers,” White said.

However, getting to this point is challenging considering every student comes into the class with different experiences.

“I was surprised by how many kids come into the course with very little,” Klein said. He wishes that he took a course like this when he was 17, because even though he was a great math student. Klein did not know anything about personal finances.

Therefore, just because someone takes three math classes does not mean they will automatically know everything in the personal finance course.

What separates the personal finance course from other math classes is that it is based entirely upon application.

“Many students complain about conceptual math being too far-fetched to be harnessed in their future lives—if you fall under that category you should take the personal finance course,” Marriott said.

The course is “more than just teaching them about math, it is preparing them for life outside the walls of Staples,” Klein said

Currently there are 150 students enrolled in the course, mostly seniors; however, the problem is these students only account for a small percentage of the entire Staples population of over 1700 students.

Because of this, the question of whether or not the course should be a graduation requirement has been seriously been considered, although, Klein said it would be extremely difficult and take many years to gain state approval.

“I strongly believe that it should be a required course at Staples because all too often you hear about people getting into financial problems or scandals,” Josh Kaseff ’11 said.

Though, before it becomes a graduation requirement, it is Connecticut’s goal to have every high school in the state offer a personal finance course. Not only is this a statewide goal but also something desired nationally.

There is a “great need for this, not just here, but nationally and in the state. All kids should have these skills. When else would they learn these things?” Klein said.

Even if a student were to learn these skills from their parents, this might not happen until later in life, White said.

“I don’t think I would have learned these skills if I didn’t take the class, until I had a problem in the future,” Hollie Friedenberg ’11 said.

Kaseff agrees that the best way to learn these skills is through the personal finance course. “I guess I could have tried researching it on the internet or asking my parents but by learning about all these necessary skills in a school setting, it forces you to actually pay attention to what you’re being taught,” said Kaseff.

In the past, credit card companies have targeted college students when marketing, which led students to piling up huge debts and getting into financial trouble.

Essentially, companies would handout credit cards to anyone, leaving the fine print up for student’s own interpretation.

However, “recently the credit card industry has been tightened up, and now with new laws it is harder to receive a credit card before 21,” said White.

Colleges may not be able to hide warnings in the fine print of credit card contracts anymore, but, if a student does not understand what these warnings means, they are useless. Therefore, colleges will continue to attempt to give out credit cards to the kids who do not know any better.

In order to avoid running into these problems, the course warns students about the financial traps of credit cards as well as student loans.

Over the past few years, the nation’s economy has suffered because people were not financially responsible. So, in order to evade having future economic problems this class teaches kids how to responsibly handle their money, White said.

Klein hopes that kids will recognize the benefit and value of the class.

“It is the most important class at staples, in terms of preparing students for the real world,” White said.

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