TEXT OF INTERVIEW
TESS VIGELAND: I’m not one of those people who’s wanted to relive high school ever since I left it. “Go Lions,” I said. “And buh-bye,” as I walked out the doors of West Linn High School for the last time in June of 1986. At least I thought it would be the last time.
But about a month ago I found myself back at West Linn, about 15 miles south of downtown Portland, Ore., wandering the corridors. Actually, I wasn’t allowed to wander on account of the microphone in my hand. But I got a hall pass that entitled me to a turkey sandwich in the cafeteria. And entry into Todd Jones’ fifth period econ class
Todd Jones: Lexie, Joey. Oh my stars. Ten out of 27 gone. I’d say between field trip and swine flu, we’re done. Girls, go ahead and move on up a row today we don’t need to be spread out.
Mr. Jones wanted his juniors and seniors closer to the front of the class so they could absorb the information from a special guest, which was not me. No, the day’s guest was Melody Thompson, here to teach the students about insurance.
Melody Thompson: All right you guys, we’re here to talk about insurance and my experience is I was a claims adjustor. A claims adjustor is the person who is going to be writing the checks.
Turns out West Linn is one of the schools using curriculum from an Oregon nonprofit called Financial Beginnings, to teach kids about money. Thompson founded the organization.
It brings real-life experts into classrooms to teach high school kids about not just insurance, but credit cards, banking, car loans, anything related to personal finance.
Thompson: So credit can actually affect your insurance rates. If you have poor credit they’re gonna charge you more. Why?
Student 1: It shows how responsible you are.
Student 2: The risk of whether you pay or not.
Thompson: There’s the responsibility, but actually what was I saying before on the actuaries?
Over the last few weeks, of course, we’ve been focusing on kids and money. How we teach it, what they think of it. All leading up to a special live show in Portland this Monday night. Most of us learned the basics of finance not from our parents but at school.
Back in my day it was called Home Ec. It’s where I learned how to balance a checkbook. Today’s kids have probably never even heard of Home Ec. Thanks to budget cuts, they’re not learning about budgeting. Unless they’re lucky enough to have a teacher who thinks it just might be important.
Enter Todd Jones. He dedicates several weeks of his econ class to topics around personal finance. I sat down with him before class to talk about why. And I started by asking what his financial education looked like.
Jones: The only thing I remember distinctly about it was check book management. I remember them teaching us how to write checks and how to keep a check registry. And I still brag to my kids today that I do that. I actually bring my check registry in and put it up on the screen so they can look at it and they see how I enter and what I enter and why I enter it. But in my course, personal finance is much more expansive than that.
Now, economics is not a required course at this high school. The students are required to get so many social studies credits, but they can choose from a number of things to fulfill that credit requirement. Economics is one of the choices.
Vigeland: What are the other choices?
Jones: Anything from international relations to global events to modern European history.
Vigeland: So finance is an elective then.
Jones: It is. Personally, I think it should be a required course here. Now that said, economics curriculum doesn’t necessarily specifically call for personal finance in this state. You know, if you look at our textbook, it deals with the basics of how to run a business, supply and demand, macroeconomic concepts, etc. There really is no requirement in economics in this state that personal finance be done.
Vigeland: Why do you think it is that this subject is not part of the mandated curriculum nationwide?
Jones: I’m only speculating, but from things I’ve heard and things I’ve read, but as budgets got tighter, yet the expectations of core curriculum grew stronger, more and more schools are having to emphasize English, reading and writing, mathematics, sometimes science. And schools are saying “We’re going to stick to the basics, and there are some things that families are going to take care of their own.” And so I think this has been left to parents to say you’ve got to figure out how to educate your children financially.
Vigeland: And in general, do you believe that that’s happening?
Jones: When I asked the students for feedback at the end of the semester on the course, they consistently tell me that this is some of the most information, most important information they’ve gotten. Because no one before has ever told them.
Vigeland: Including mom and dad.
Jones: Including. They were the sources who we hope were taking care of that. They want to know how to manage their money. They want to be successful with it. Whether they’ll carry the lessons out of the room is another question. But they get it here.
Vigeland: Why do you think this isn’t something that comes up in the home?
Jones: Like a lot of things, a lot of parents are very busy with a lot of stuff; a lot of kids are very busy with a lot of stuff. And I think for example, when I sit down to do my bills or set my budget on a monthly basis, I usually do it after the kids have gone to bed. And I think parents just forget, everything I do is a teaching opportunity for my own children.
And I’ll take myself as an example. I mean, I’m an economics teacher. And yet, it was only few months ago that for the very first time I was sitting down to do my bills and I thought, “Duh.” And I had my 12-year-old daughter come to me and I said, “Ellie, sit down. I want to tell you what we spend our money on every month. You know, this is how much money mom and dad took in. Here’s where the money goes. And notice how we have this budget set up and notice how we pay savings first. And we pay our investments first and our college savings, we pay that first. Why do we do that? Because if I leave it in the account, that money won’t be there at the end of the month. Because anything in an account will be spent.”
Vigeland: And what was her reaction to that lesson?
Jones: Well, I think it was amazingly insightful to do it. I wish I had done it sooner, because what I have noticed is a change in her behavior in how she views our family’s money now. Instead of viewing as “mom and dad’s money and I want it,” “our money.” I’m finding that it even affects how often she asks for things, whether she asks for things. More and more we’re asking her to contribute some of her own money to something if she wants it bad enough, so she really has to think to herself, “Hm. Do I want to fork out some of my own money?” But I think she sees more the big picture now and not just view mom and dad as this unending hole of source of cash.
Vigeland: Well, aren’t you?
Jones: No. I teach public school.
Vigeland: So you have a 12-year-old daughter. How old is your other child?
Jones: Ten. I have two daughters, 12 and 10.
Vigeland: What do you think is an appropriate age to start talking about this kind of thing?
Jones: I think as soon as kids become aware of money, which is what? Two, three? As soon as they start saying “I want.” The lessons can start right there. “Do you want that? Well, if we choose that, we might not get this,” when you want to make a choice between two things. Literally, you are teaching your child an economic concept there; you’re teaching them about scarcity. We have unlimited wants, but not unlimited resources. You’re teaching them about opportunity-cost for everything. I choose, there’s something I can’t choose. Those lessons are right there and we should involve our kids in it.
Vigeland: What kind of lessons did you have as a kid. You talked a little bit about the class you had in high school, but is it something that was talked about in your household?
Jones: No, not at all. No. Finances was something that just mom and dad need to take care of and the rest of just live our blissful youth.
Vigeland: Can you tell us what you’re teaching this week?
Jones: We are mostly focused on credit cards this week. For example, I tell the students a little riddle and I say, “I think credit cards are absolutely frightening and scary and yet I have one and yet I use it every single opportunity imaginable.” And they look at me like “What?” What I explain to them later is I used my credit card to pay for every single thing I can and yet when I use it, I write it in my check registry as if it were a debit, as if the money’s already been spent. So I pay every bill in full, every single month. I have not paid a penny of interest in the past 15 years. And yet, because I’m using the card, I’m accumulating all these points. So if you’re smart and disciplined enough to take advantage of the goodies without getting bit by the interests and the fees and the other things, then all power to you.
Vigeland: Todd Jones, thank you so much.
Jones: My pleasure.