“Anyone had an experience when they bought something because of FOMO?” Susan Comparato recently asked her students in a personal finance class at Swampscott High School. “I bought a senior shirt,” one responded, lamenting the $20 he spent because he didn’t want to miss out. Another student piped in with his own regret: the $50 video game he purchased because of the hype among his friends — he doesn’t even play it. Conversation about the “fear of missing out” moved on to brainstorming on how to avoid overspending under social pressure.
In Comparato’s class of juniors and seniors, everyone has had a job, and the topic resonated. “Our population is one where the majority of students go to college,” Comparato says, “so they’re making major financial decisions at 17 and 18 years old that are going to impact them forever.”
Comparato first proposed a personal finance course at the school in 2002, back when she was teaching multimedia and web design, after a persistent student sought her out with questions about how stocks worked. She got permission to teach personal finance as an elective, but it wasn’t until 2019 that she got the school to approve a financial literacy course as a requirement for graduation from Swampscott High, a public school with about 670 students. She now teaches financial literacy to about 150 students a year. “I think a lot of people didn’t realize how little of it was taught at home,” she says, “and how important it really is that they get a solid foundation in the classroom.”
Ensuring access to financial education for each child who goes through the public school system might seem like a no-brainer, particularly at a time when credit card and college debts are at a record-high. But Massachusetts lags significantly behind nearly half of states in guaranteeing financial literacy instruction to all students. In the past three years, the number of states that passed legislation requiring it be taught in schools has grown from eight to 23, a number that includes New Hampshire and Rhode Island, as well as Connecticut (which is one of the 15 states currently implementing the requirement). Yet, Massachusetts has been slow in passing similar legislation. A 2021 report by the American Public Education Foundation graded Massachusetts a C for teaching financial literacy, citing the lack of grade-specific standards and the absence of a required, standalone course. (Among the six states earning A’s were Utah, Ohio, and North Carolina.) Surveys report that more than half of young adults who take out credit cards don’t know how they work; in Massachusetts in 2019, the average balance on cards was more than $6,000.
Another comprehensive report released by the state treasurer’s Office of Economic Empowerment in 2021 painted a picture of inconsistent and scattershot instruction of financial literacy across all grades. While 70 percent of Massachusetts’ schools offer some financial literacy education as an elective, without a comprehensive and statewide approach, many kids graduate without learning the basics of budgeting, saving, and investing. Only 17 public schools in the state — Swampscott High School among them — have made financial literacy a graduation requirement, according to Next Gen Personal Finance, a nonprofit that creates free K-12 personal finance curricula and works with officials and teachers nationwide to advance access to financial literacy courses and pass legislation.
“Massachusetts consistently comes up on top as far as our overall academic prowess, but with financial literacy, we’re really letting our kids go out into the ocean without a life vest,” says Jessica Pelletier, executive director at FitMoney, a Newton-based nonprofit that provides free K-12 curricula and programs and advocates for a state financial literacy requirement. Teaching financial education should begin early, because it’s more than just a set of skills to learn. “Financial literacy is not just math — it’s behavior and decision making,” Pelletier says. “It’s deciding: ‘I want both of these things, but I can only have one. How do I make that decision?’”
The movement toward expanding access to financial literacy in the Commonwealth has been gaining momentum in the past several years. In 2019, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education put forth standards as part of the social studies curriculum — a set of concepts such as loans, interest, and credit — that should guide financial literacy instruction. This year, Massachusetts allocated $100,000 for financial education professional development, funds that were matched by Next Gen Personal Finance. That resulted in a three-day summit at Bridgewater State University for more than 50 state educators as well as a $500 stipend for the teachers who completed 20 hours of financial education professional development. The department also has $250,000 in state funds available through a competitive grant program for schools to support financial literacy.
The efforts aren’t only focused on students. After taking office in 2015, state Treasurer Deb Goldberg created the Office of Economic Empowerment, which runs financial education programs for schools in addition to seniors, women, service members, and veterans. The BabySteps Savings Plan offers babies and recent adoptees who are also enrolled in SNAP a deposit of $10 a month into their college savings account for one year.
Earlier this year, Goldberg worked with state Senator Patrick O’Connor, a Republican from Weymouth, on a bill that would mandate incorporating financial literacy into curricula and create a fund to pay for materials and professional development. Another bill on financial literacy sponsored by state Representative Ryan Hamilton, Democrat of Methuen, is in the pipeline.
Despite these efforts, in the Commonwealth’s classrooms, experts say financial literacy instruction has been inconsistent, often spearheaded by passionate teachers who on their own sift through resources and go after funding for it. “A lot of communities make a strong effort to try to figure out ways to teach kids financial education,” Goldberg says. “However, it is not institutionalized and it’s not mandated and it’s not available to every kid. And like many other things, kids in more affluent communities often get more opportunities to learn things.” The ground is fertile to move beyond this kind of piecemeal approach to teaching kids about finances, O’Connor says. “Passing legislation is the next logical step.”
The click-clack of keyboards fills Comparato’s classroom as students finish a class assignment on the differences between various cognitive biases related to money, such as the sunk cost fallacy, which makes it hard for people to change their mind after an initial investment of time or money. Next, Comparato, who’s been implementing the Next Gen Personal Finance curriculum in her classroom, invites the group into the hallway for a competition. She splits the class in two teams and tasks each to match sheets describing various scenarios of money behavior with the names of the cognitive biases they illustrate. Students tape sheets of paper on the walls and cheer as Comparato checks off correct pairings. “You see how being aware that these exist can help you in the future?” Comparato asks. Her students nod.
The psychology of money is different for every student. “Everybody has their own personal relationship to money, which is driven by their mind-sets, which is impacted by the household they grew up in, the community they live in,” says Tim Ranzetta, cofounder of Next Gen Personal Finance. “We have to grapple with these issues right out of the gate.”
Several students in Comparato’s class admitted that their families weren’t forthcoming about money issues or avoided those conversations altogether. Comparato hears that a lot from students. “It’s kind of secretive,” says Jon Karametsopoulos, a junior. “I don’t speak about money with my parents and I’m not sure why.” Another student admits she may not have taken this class if it weren’t a requirement, even though she knows little about money. For senior Ellie Levine, the home and classroom education complement one another. “It’s not that we talk about [money], but I’m just more observant of my parents’ money habits,” says Levine, whose father works in financial planning. “At school, I get to understand the behind the scenes of the behaviors I observe.”
Some students will take that financial knowledge back to their families. Jenny Trieu is a special education math teacher at John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science in Roxbury. The exam school is within Boston Public Schools, where students of color make up nearly 90 percent of the student body. Trieu grew up in a family of refugees from Vietnam, watching her parents budget to make sure they had enough food for a month. Now, she teaches personal finance as a small-group class that meets twice a month using the Next Gen Personal Finance curriculum. She says students bring her money questions from their families, too. “It’s really cool how they take it outside the classroom,” Trieu says. “Financial literacy doesn’t just impact our students and their financial futures, but their entire families and many generations to come.”
Making the classroom a hub for these conversations is ultimately the most equitable way to teach financial literacy, FitMoney’s Pelletier says. “If we wait until you get your first bank account or when your parents open a 529 [college savings plan], you’re leaving a huge section of the population behind,” Pelletier says. “And, clearly, that’s not fair.” And while everyone makes financial mistakes, those from the underserved communities have further to fall as a consequence, she says. “We’re really trying to bridge the gap between the generational cycle of poverty and giving kids tools to hopefully get out of that.”
There’s help available to reach that goal. Today, the internet is brimming with financial literacy resources. The nonprofit Jumpstart offers a curated database for financial education resources. Local banks, such as M&T Bank, which partners with the Office of Economic Empowerment, and the Newburyport-based Institution for Savings, bring free financial education workshops into classrooms. High school students can take a semester-long course with a branch of Junior Achievement and get credit for it. But it’s often up to the teachers to sort through an overwhelming amount of information to assemble a curriculum that fits their classes.
For a lot of high school students, there are a slew of imminent milestones and life decisions — buying a car, opening a credit card, taking out a college loan — that organically lend themselves to relatable learning opportunities. Ranzetta, of Next Gen Personal Finance, suggests that a conversation about a part-time job can be a segue into learning about taxes and how to read a pay stub, or the link between a college major and potential income. “You have to be current and meet students where they’re at,” he says, adding that sometimes it means watching TikTok and YouTube videos with them and talking about the content.
Credit For Life Fairs, hosted across Massachusetts schools, do just that by turning realistic life scenarios into a game. During a simulation, students assume an identity of a 25-year-old with a career of their choice and its typical salary. Walking from booth to booth, they spend that salary, use credit cards, buy a car, pay taxes, and get a taste of what it takes to live within their means. “To be able to shock kids into reality is pretty amazing,” says Goldberg, whose office partners with the state Division of Banks to fund these workshops. She recalls the dismay of one student who went on a shopping spree with a $125,000 salary and wound up bankrupt by noon.
Carter Hempleman, a math teacher at Brooke High School in Mattapan, implements a simulated classroom economy where students get jobs, pay rent for their desks, and pay for Wi-Fi and other utilities. There are loan officers and fines for violating the norms that students establish themselves. As their capstone project, students create a five-year plan in Google spreadsheets with a hypothetical career and expenses — a blueprint they can use in the future. “Later, they can return back to that and say, ‘Well, these are my new inputs,’” says Hempleman, who before becoming a teacher worked as a financial adviser at PricewaterhouseCoopers.
On a recent morning, Hempleman leads a class on the gig economy and the differences between freelance and full-time jobs. The students, all seniors, played a game from the Financial Times on their computers, assuming the role of a full-time Uber driver with two children and a $1,000 mortgage. When the game is over, Hempleman asks, “Anyone met the $1,000 goal?” Only one hand shoots up. “I didn’t make money when I first played it,” Hempleman says as he walks around the class, peeking at students’ balances on their computer screens.
Throughout the height of the pandemic, Hempleman taught a financial literacy club on Zoom. Students would come eager to talk about Bitcoin, day trading, and different investment ideas, but he found it challenging to address one-off interests without first laying the foundation of basic financial concepts, such as the time value of money and compound interest. He first tried integrating personal finance concepts into his precalculus and other math classes, but it was hard to strike a balance between the curricula. “We were trying to marry the two, but in reality it was hard to do at the same time,” he says. This year, he was approved to teach a semester-long personal finance course.
Teaching financial literacy takes time, educators say. “You have to have time and space to teach this course, and anything short of one semester, you’re just not [going to do enough],” says Ranzetta, who used to teach personal finance at a high school in California. Hands-on and experiential activities may not be the fastest way to deliver this content, he admits. “But that’s the most effective, because that’s what sticks,” he says. States such as Alabama and Louisiana opted for a yearlong financial literacy course requirement for all students before graduation.
While most high schools in Massachusetts offer a financial literacy elective, financial educators and advocates believe that age-appropriate financial literacy instruction should begin much earlier — ideally in kindergarten. One of FitMoney’s lessons for kindergarteners focuses on safe places to keep money — such as a bank versus couch cushions — and the difference between a “thing” and an “experience.” “Kids understand birthday presents and think that Amazon packages just show up, because Mom willed it,” says FitMoney’s Pelletier. “They see the stress of their caregivers.”
Kids can begin to learn the language around concepts they observe yet don’t fully understand, says Erica Lauria, a third-grade teacher at Cunniff Elementary School in Watertown. The school chose to use 30-minute flexible blocks to break up six one-hour lessons on topics including earning, insurance, budgeting, and borrowing. “They’ve already been exposed to a lot of money concepts,” Lauria says. “They just don’t always ask what they are because to them it was considered an adult topic.”
While there is no shortage of educators passionate about financial literacy, teachers are up against time constraints and competing priorities — MCAS requirements, numerous other electives — and there are simply not enough teachers to squeeze in additional personal finance sections to reach more students. “There are so many different requirements that kids have specifically at the high school level — how do you fit this in?” says Joseph Tarantello, a business teacher at Hingham High School, where he is teaching a personal finance elective this semester. “Hopefully we’ll be able to create a situation where we can reach all of those kids.”
Hempleman, at Brooke High, hopes his classroom can be a trusted space, where students can talk honestly about their financial situations and learn from each other and potentially each other’s mistakes — whether it’s a friend buying an expensive handbag or a relative having lots of credit cards, he says. He likes to lean into “the personal” aspect of personal finance. He’s open about the dumb mistakes he’s made, like in college when he opted in for a 20 percent discount at Gap without realizing he was signing up for a credit card and, as a result, tanked his credit score. “I’ve built stronger connections with my kids in this course over the last three weeks than any other course I’ve ever taught,” he says when we talk in September. “We’re trying to be honest and share our backgrounds to hopefully avoid some of the pitfalls.”
Hempleman’s students seemed to know exactly how the class would give them an advantage. Alaina James, a senior, says it’s crucial to get on the right track early, before the avalanche of adult financial responsibilities. “Especially going into college, we’re all trying to stay one step ahead,” James says. “It sets us up for a more intentional financial life later.” For Blessing Adedeji, a senior, the class spells out how to do the things she’s told she should do. “With other classes, you learn how to study, how to take notes,” she says. “But no one is teaching you how to save or how to budget.”
Olivia Barletta, a junior from Swampscott High, says she feels strongly about the value of personal finance and is confused that it isn’t more widely taught. Ultimately, a lack of focus on something so practical and necessary raises larger questions of what skills schools ought to prioritize: “It makes no sense to go into adulthood knowing how to write a five-paragraph essay, but not knowing how to balance a checkbook.”
THREE EXERCISES TO PREPARE KIDS AND TEENS FOR THEIR FINANCIAL FUTURES
By Sally Sampson
For elementary schoolers: Change It Up
Goal: Understand coins and numbers. Since the sizes of coins don’t correspond to their value, this can be confusing for younger children.
How: Have on hand: 25 pennies, six nickels, two dimes and one quarter.
Ask your child to pile up five pennies, counting as they go. Put the pile next to a nickel. Explain that they have the same value. Take a penny away, one at a time, and ask them to count out what is left after each penny is removed.
Next, try piling up two nickels and put them next to a dime. Explain that they have the same value. Take one nickel away and ask them what is left. Now, ask them how many pennies that would be equal to.
Pile up 25 pennies, five nickels, two dimes plus one nickel, and one quarter in separate piles. Explain that each pile has the same value.
Now ask them to imagine they are going to a store to buy an apple that costs 25 cents. You are the storekeeper and they are the customer. Ask them to “buy” an apple from you in as many different ways that they can imagine.
For middle schoolers: Budget Basics
Goal: Connect what you want to buy with what it takes to get it.
How: Ask your middle schooler to make a budget. Tell them a budget is really a plan, in this case, for how to save for what they want.
Ask them to list something they want to buy, such as a new game, a gift for a friend, or a trip, and its approximate cost.
Now, ask them if they can come up with ways to earn that money. It may come from an existing allowance, chores, or a job. If they really want something, they will likely come up with interesting ways to earn the needed money.
When they realize that it might take 20 hours of mowing lawns to buy the sneakers they want, they may decide they don’t want the sneakers.
For high schoolers: Piquing Interest
Goal: Grow your money!
How: Ask them to imagine three scenarios.
- They save $100 and leave it under their mattress. In one year, what do they have? ($100)
- Take that same $100 and put it in an account that offers 10 percent interest. In one year, what do they have? ($110)
- Now what happens if they leave that original $100 in the account for five years? They have $161.05, without even adding anything to it. And after 10? $259.37. Compound interest helps the money grow.
Mariya Manzhos is a journalist based in Somerville. Send comments to email@example.com. Sally Sampson is the founder of ChopChop Family, the publisher of ChopChop: The Fun Cooking Magazine for Families, and Benjamin, The Smart Money Magazine for Kids and their Families. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.