There is no shortage of financial gurus. Books, websites, even public television abounds with advisors, planners, and advice-givers hoping to tell you the best way to handle your hard-earned money.
But none of them talk to kids. The plethora of financial advice lays out detailed plans for adults with jobs they hope not to keep forever. Catherine Milone, president of Junior Achievement of New Jersey, on Route 1 South, thinks it is a mistake to let people grow up first and learn their fiscal lessons through costly trial and error.
Junior Achievement, or JA, is a worldwide nonprofit that preaches from one very practical gospel. Volunteers go into schools as early as kindergarten and through high school to teach kids the right way and wrong way to look at money. JA will bring present “It Pay$ to be Financially Literate,” for free, to Hamilton’s Klockner Elementary School on Tuesday, April 29, at 8:30 a.m. at Stokes Elementary School in Trenton. The programs is part of JA’s designation of April as Financial Literacy Month. For more information about the program or the organization, visit www.ja-nj.org.
The reason for meeting children so young, Milone says, is simple — bad financial planning can lead to a host of troubles. and not just for the person having trouble paying the credit card bills. As a nation, she says — indeed as a world — we are all hurt by poor fiscal management. Just take a look at the economy right now, a by-product of overextended credit and unsound mortgage practices.
The basis of those giddy shopping sprees and big dreams, Milone says, lies in how we teach kids to look at money. “When people have good financial habits, it’s good for the economy,” she says. So JA drives that principle into children as early as it can.
But finance is complicated. How do you convey the right message to first graders, as JA’s volunteers will do at Klockner and Stokes? Rest assured, JA’s volunteers are not Warren Buffett and Suze Ormand, and no one is going to be telling the kids about 401ks, living trusts, and interest yield. Dubbed “Our Families,” the first-grade program emphasizes the roles people, from mom and dad to the doctor and the auto mechanic, play in the economy, Milone says. How people earn money and how it is used to buy things will be wrapped in one overarching lesson focusing on the difference between what you want and what you actually need.
Milone, a 1990 business and marketing graduate of Syracuse University, has been with the Junior Achievement all her professional life, and with the New Jersey Chapter for about seven years. She has gone into classrooms — largely in the state’s poorer districts, where financial planning and education are seldom, if ever, taught in schools — and preached the understanding of that difference. But she had not seen it in action until earlier this year.
Last year, Milone says, she visited a first grade class at a school in Camden and taught the children what makes something a need (like shelter) versus a desire (such as a mansion with a pool and a four-car garage). This year, she revisited that school and experienced one of her proudest professional moments when a little girl, now in second grade, told of an uncle who dropped by to ask her family for the $200 he needed to buy a pair of sneakers. The little girl’s answer: “You don’t need those sneakers, you want those sneakers. Get a job.”
Building good financial habits early, just as building good eating, brushing, and conflict resolution skills early, greatly improves a child’s chances of not being swayed by predatory lenders and hucksters looking to tap into people’s wants, Milone says. And though JA concentrates on poorer school districts, the group does not limit itself to them. Milone says that all children, no matter the economic background, need to understand how money and finances work. Just as poor children need a leg up, she says, rich children need to understand the value of money and not just expect that it will always be there.
Still, JA does like to encourage kids to dream big. “You can succeed, regardless of your circumstances,” she says. “But being intelligent about how you spend your money is going to affect your entire life.”