Recently, I wrote about the fact that more and more high schools are making financial literacy a graduation requirement.
I went to one of those schools.
My home state, Rhode Island, doesn’t require students to take personal finance classes.
But the private school I attended held mandatory assemblies for juniors and seniors throughout the year where we’d learn about money.
A representative from a local bank would teach us about how to set goals, create a budget, and build credit.
We learned about the difference between stocks and mutual funds, what it means to have a high insurance deductible, and how to avoid identity theft.
At the time, I didn’t take it seriously. We weren’t getting graded, after all.
So those assemblies became an opportunity to surreptitiously study my flash cards and prepare for the tests that I had coming up.
The culmination of everything that we’d learned was Real World Day, held in the gym of a nearby university. When we arrived, we chose our future career and were told our take-home salary. Then, we had to formulate our budget. The gym was full of tables where we could pretend to rent an apartment, buy or lease a car, sign up for insurance, or get a new computer.
Because I was a bratty teenager, I chose “zookeeper” as my future career, even though I was planning to major in English and had no interest in wildlife biology. The take-home pay was lower than I’d expected, and as I worked through my budget, I kept making concessions: OK, I’ll live with roommates. That’s fine, I don’t have to go out to dinner very often. The bus goes to the zoo, so I don’t really need a car.
The one luxury that I allowed myself was a line item for biweekly manicures. “Are you sure that’s how you want to be spending your money?” a woman from the bank asked me when she reviewed my budget at the end of the day.
I nodded. Yes, having nice nails was really important to me.
Even though my priorities were admittedly misguided, doing that calculation taught me a valuable lesson that’s stuck with me ever since: You can spend your money on things that are important to you, but you’ll have to cut back somewhere else.
Instead of manicures, I could have said that I wanted to go to concerts every month, or pay extra to live in a luxury apartment building. The same thing would have held true.
Since graduating from college, I’ve often wished that I’d paid more attention during those personal finance assemblies that I considered “unimportant” because they didn’t affect my grades. I’m sure that knowledge would help as I try to figure out what insurance plans are best, how to plan my spending so that I don’t go through my whole paycheck in a week, and if it’s worth starting a 401(k) when I still have student loans.
You could use me as an example and argue that high school students aren’t mature enough to learn about personal finance. At the time, the real world felt so far off that there was no point in planning for it.
But despite my resistance, I still learned about balancing my wants and needs, and prioritising the things that matter to me over the things that don’t. Every time I make my budget for the month, that lesson comes back to me. So I’m grateful that my school forced students to learn about personal finance, and I think that all high schools should do the same.
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