Part of financial literacy is knowing how money works, which is common instruction in schools that offer a personal finance class. But to be truly capable, and enjoy better outcomes, adults must also understand the social and emotional aspects of money. That constitutes The Missing Half of financial education. In this series, Right About Money contributor and award-winning financial literacy teacher Brian Page examines how to nurture behavioral skills that lead kids to better financial outcomes in adulthood.
Your net worth does not define your self-worth. As a parent and financial literacy teacher, I reinforce this theme every day.
Money is a tool that helps shape us, and the things we value, but it does not determine these things. I saw this first-hand as a child watching the decisions and sacrifices my parents made, for instance, giving up new cars to put me through college.
As a teacher, I try to set the same example through a tool like the Life Values Quiz from the National Endowment for Financial Education, which helps students identify their core values. We then discuss how these values influence their financial choices. Another free resource is one I created along with Digital Promise and the George Washington University Financial Literacy Excellence Center. It is called Social and Emotional Based Learning: Comparison Shopping for Big Ticket Items.
Both resources align with the core competencies described by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, which is spearheading this kind of learning on a broad scale. One core competency is Responsible Decision Making, defined in part as “the realistic evaluation of consequences of various actions, and a consideration of the well-being of oneself and others.”
One in three households that earn more than $75,000 a year carry a credit card balance, one in four make minimum payments, and two in five believe they have too much debt, according to the National Financial Capability Study. Much if this financial misbehavior owes to folks not making responsible decisions; failing to live below their means.
I try to show students that the cars they drive, the clothes they wear, and the homes they live in—how much they spend, not how much they make—is the true source of money problems.
In Opposite of Spoiled, author Ron Lieber looked at the ways parents raise kids, leading them to become more generous and less materialistic. I asked him how teachers and parents might keep children from equating self-worth with net worth.
“If there comes a point where your children realize that they have more or less than others in their community, remind them that your family doesn’t care so much about who has the most or who has the least,” he said. “Instead try to focus on how well they share what they have, who treats people with the most kindness and who is modest about whatever it is they have.”
Neil Gabler wrote in The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans, “I never wanted to keep up with the Joneses. But, like many Americans, I wanted my children to keep up with the Joneses’ children, because I knew how easily my girls could be marginalized in a society where nearly all the rewards go to a small, well-educated elite.”
The increasing cost of raising a child in a world with shrinking economic opportunities is a problem many parents face, including in my household. We’re a middle class family trying to provide upper class opportunities for our children. We’re fine letting the Joneses get ahead, so long as—like Gabler—our children are not falling behind.
I suspect many of my students will feel the same way when they are parents. So I’m now developing a new lesson—one that requires students in a budgeting exercise to choose from three options: the cost of raising a child for a lower class, middle class, and upper class family. This is a new reality that our young people should consider before making life choices that may lead them to spend more than they earn—and cause years of financial distress.