In February, 2010, New Jersey became the 10th state to mandate that high school students must have two to five credits of financial literacy education in order to graduate. “No matter what career path students choose,” said acting commissioner of education Rochelle Hendricks at the time, “they will need to know how to maintain bank accounts, how to understand credit scores, and how to stay financially healthy.”

OurDoughMain.com is not alone in thinking that kids need a better understanding of money and finances, though until now the onus of teaching financial responsibility has fallen on parents. A poll conducted by Junior Achievement of New Jersey (JA) and the Allstate Foundation in April found that 82 percent of New Jersey teens say the Great Recession sparked by the 2008 Wall Street meltdown has motivated them to learn more about managing their money. The poll also showed that for the same number of teens, parents are their number one resource for financial planning.

Yet only half of teens say they have discussed money management with their families.

“Refreshingly, we are learning that parents have a major influence on how their children learn to manage money,” said Catherine Milone, president of Junior Achievement. “Parents should speak to their children about money management at a young age because one is never too young to start forming good habits.”

In response to its findings, JA and Allstate have launched a series of free online lessons (available at www.ja.org/courseware) designed to “empower youth to own their future economic success.” The lessons are meant to engage kids in an online space to learn about money in a fun and entertaining way.

The online and in-classroom curricula teach age-appropriate concepts around spending, sharing, and saving money.

Elementary students learn about taking responsibility for financial decisions, how to make those choices based on prioritizing needs and wants, and then develop a plan for spending and saving.

Middle school students learn to take income into account to create a personal spending and savings plan that uses different payment methods, including credit. High school students build on these lessons and apply them to real-life scenarios such as buying a car and paying for college.

While parents seem to be the primary source of financial information for teens, banks, schools, and financial firms are not merely watching from the sidelines — particularly when it comes to the idea of “never too young to learn.”

In April employees from The Bank, based in Mount Laurel, taught savings lessons to 850 children in Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, Cumberland, Gloucester, Mercer, Monmouth, Ocean, and Salem counties.

“Teach Children to Save Day,” a program sponsored by the American Bankers Association Education Foundation, is an occasional event that uses games and activities to explain the concept of saving, how interest makes money grow, how to budget, how to create a spending plan, and the difference between needs and wants.

First Choice Bank has taken an even more direct route. The bank recently honored four Lawrence High School seniors for completing a successful year of banking at Cardinal Bank — a real bank operated by First Choice inside the high school itself.

The Lawrence Township Education Foundation partnered with First Choice last summer to train certain seniors in accounts and banking and set up a branch inside Lawrence High for the 2010-’11 school year.

The students took their training and opened Cardinal Bank daily and helped other students open and close accounts, deposit and withdraw funds, and understand the importance of saving and budgeting.

The bank was open for students transactions, and at the close of each day First Choice Bank would reconcile the transactions at the local Lawrenceville Branch.

Plans to re-run the Cardinal Bank program for the 2011-’12 school year are already in the works.

Part of the solution to teaching kids financial literacy, of course, is to train the trainers. In April and May McGraw-Hill Federal Credit Union, the New Jersey Education Association, the New Jersey Department of Education, and the New Jersey Coalition for Financial Education launched their inaugural financial literacy series for all teachers in New Jersey. The program, held over two sessions, taught teachers how to address and impart the basics of financial to their students.

According to McGraw-Hill, the program is a response to a study by the Jumpstart Coalition, which found that the percentage of students who had a basic understanding of financial matters dipped to 48.3 percent in 2008.

The report also noted that “most students lack the simple skills to balance a checkbook and do not understand the basic principles of earning, spending, saving, and investing.”

Shawn Gilfedder, McGraw-Hill Federal Credit Union’s president and CEO, said the program is meant to arm teachers with more than just textbook knowledge. It is meant to provide them with practical examples of financial literacy.

“Of all the seminars we’ve held, the credit score topic is by far the most popular because it is one of the most mysterious components in financial literacy,” Gilfedder said. “Not just for young people, but adults. We want to stop the problem where it starts, during a person’s youth, when they at risk for the most financial peril.”

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