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Lesson 6.17

Personal Finance:
Learning to Earn

Few schools teach kids money skills. Surprised?

hero image

At some level, personal finance is common sense and Ben Franklin-style self-discipline. A penny saved is a penny earned, right?

Sure, but in an era of easy credit, street-corner paycheck advances, and mass-marketed financial services with cute mascots, it is easy to become confused, or overwhelmed. Members of the middle class drive by some of the most discouraging parts of the financial service economy without even noticing it. As California Governor Gavin Newsom has pointed out, "the nation has as many check-cashing and payday loan businesses as it does McDonalds and Starbucks Coffee stores combined." These services are expensive — but for the poor, banks can be even worse.

A little financial prep
makes sense
and works wonders
to help kids get ahead
and head off
money blunders

Strong personal finance habits can help today’s youth turn into adults able to support themselves and those they care about. Self-sufficient adults help the economy by contributing to economic growth. The reverse is tragically common. The role that most schools play in preparing students to understand and navigate personal finance is shockingly limited.

California students generally do not have a class on financial skills. Instead, financial topics are supposed to be "woven into" the curriculum.

California is not very successful at teaching financial skills. In a review of financial literacy education among the 50 states, Champlain College awarded California a failing grade. California lawmakers have taken some notice of this issue by weaving topics related to financial literacy into the curriculum framework for high school students. To be clear: no separate financial literacy course is required or suggested. The topics to be covered across multiple courses include budgeting and managing credit, student loans, consumer debt, and identity theft security.

A full financial literacy course might cover four general areas: Saving and Investing, Credit and Debt, Financial Responsibility and Money Management and finally understanding Insurance, Taxes and Real Estate Debt.

According to the Council for Economic Education, college students who come from states where there is a course required in financial literacy are:

  • more likely to budget,
  • more likely to be saving,
  • less likely to have maxed out their credit cards in the last year, and
  • more likely to be paying off their credit cards fully every month.

Most jobs are created in small businesses, where basic financial readiness is a critical survival factor. In 2014, six states required testing of financial literacy according to the Council for Economic Education. California was not among them.

Non-profits try to help

Philanthropies exist to fill the educational gaps, and perhaps readers will comment to help draw attention to more of them.

  • is one organization taking proactive steps to recruit and prepare future entrepreneurs. BizWorld inspires children to be innovative leaders through the teaching of business, entrepreneurship and finance.
  • The National Endowment for Financial Education emphasizes programs in high schools located in low-income communities.
  • The California Department of Education has collected a pile of links to organizations and services with an interest in financial education.

Some of these points are presented nicely in an infographic from Edutopia.

Next Steps

Financial Literacy starts at home. The Money as You Grow site offers tips and activities sorted by your child’s age to help them understand money. Some basic ideas for pre-schoolers: You need money to buy things. You earn money by working. You may have to wait before you can buy something you want. And a big favorite: There is a huge difference between what you want and what you need. Suggested activities help drive these lessons home.

Want more financial literacy in your school? This a a good topic for your PTA meeting. Find out what is taught at your school. Do teachers have the skills and knowledge to successfully integrate financial literacy into the Common Core? Has your school board identified this as a priority? A resource to share: The Jumpstart 2015 National Standards in K-12 Personal Finance Education.

This lesson concludes chapter 6: "The Right Stuff." The next lesson begins our exploration of "The System." The overall structure of Ed100 is this: Education is Students and Teachers spending Time in Places for learning with the right Stuff and a System with Resources for Success. So Now What?

Updated December 2017
Updated March 2019


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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder December 9, 2022 at 4:07 pm
A small but growing number of states are requiring personal finance education as a distinct course. For information refer to NextGen Personal Finance. The organization ranks California 44th among the states in terms of student access to financial education.
user avatar
Admin November 17, 2021 at 10:26 am
There is evidence of strong public support for financial literacy education, especially when the question is posed in the absence of alternative priorities. Poll:
user avatar
jroubanis February 22, 2020 at 8:45 pm
Life Skills and Teen Living type courses historically tackled financial literacy in secondary school elective Home Economics (now Family & Consumer Sciences) courses.
user avatar
TOBY BLACK January 21, 2020 at 7:38 pm
Burbank had an amazing High School Econ and Government teacher, Bill North, who made sure that every student who went through his class could properly write a check. He "wove" so many financial lessons into his curriculum.
user avatar
Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh November 16, 2019 at 6:58 am
The article from The New Yorker, about how banks can be worse than check cashing stores, is very interesting. But as it was written in 2013, I wonder what has changed since then.
user avatar
Brett February 25, 2019 at 12:45 pm
This curriculum has been used in other states. Maybe CA students would benefit too.
user avatar
Caryn February 25, 2019 at 1:07 pm
Thanks for chiming in, Brett. Do any of our readers know if this curriculum or any other financial literacy courses are currently being taught in their schools? When you have curriculum concerns or questions, do you know who to ask in your school or district office?
user avatar
smgrussell September 14, 2018 at 2:51 pm
But into "whose" curriculum? Under which course?
user avatar
Caryn September 14, 2018 at 4:06 pm
Hi smgrussell, this is an excellent question and I'm sure our Ed100 readers will have some great suggestions. Readers, do you have any financial literacy courses available at your schools or ideas of which curriculum frameworks should include this important information? According to the PwC Educator Survey in 2015, 92% of K-12 educators nationwide believe financial education should be taught in schools but only 12% do. offers a six session, no cost financial literacy workshop to California educators. Providing teachers with these tools seems like a great way to start!
user avatar
Sonya Hendren August 24, 2018 at 1:27 pm
I went through the California public education system, and I didn't know the field of finance existed until I entered a finance-related field decades later. Econ teachers at every level drilled into us "Economics is not the study of money. Economics is not the study of money." I took it to mean that the money itself is arbitrary, useful only as a concept, trade could be done with tulip bulbs or shells, etc. I thought if I just kept taking enough Econ classes, eventually we would get to stocks and bonds. There was never a hint that finance is a thing, where you can study how money is used, and it exists. That's some obscuration!
It would have made a world of difference if the teachers had been trained to say "Economics is not the study of money. The study of money is called finance, and you can pursue that separately if you like."
user avatar
Lisette October 4, 2017 at 12:28 pm
I fully support teaching our children about financial responsibility. Not all parents teach this to their children and I have seen the consequences in college. Many kids get lured to signing up for credit cards to get a cheap freebie. Then some young-adults make bad choices and it affects their credit for the foreseeable future. I was lucky my parents taught us early-on what to do and not to do. Thank you mom and dad!
user avatar
susan_m_mathews May 28, 2015 at 2:23 pm
We had a highly popular "Personal Law" class at my High School in Ohio in the 1980s. In that class, I learned a lot of personal finance too, including how to write a check and balance a checkbook, how to fill out an income tax return, how to fill out a FAFSA, and and basics of credit. That class helped me feel ready to move out on my own after high school. I have not seen a similar class offered at my children's schools in California.
user avatar
g4joer6 April 20, 2015 at 11:17 am
Good ideas in this lesson. Saving, borrowing, money stuff was not discussed when I was young. Just had to figure it out on my own.
user avatar
digalameda April 5, 2015 at 1:17 pm
I think the perfect class is one quarter each of personal finance, using computer office applications, cooking, and accounting. This would give kids the basics to survive and get a basic job.
user avatar
Mamabear March 26, 2015 at 9:37 pm
Good questions! Is Economics offered in all high schools these days? Seems like a good fit to discuss money matters.
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