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TESS VIGELAND: Schools across the country are closed today for the holiday. So no reading, writing or arithmetic. But there's one subject matter that many parents, teachers, and financial-types would love to see added to the required curriculum: Money management.
Advocates for financial education say pretty much no age is too young to start teaching children about money. A program here in Los Angeles that starts in Kindergarten. We wondered what that sounds like.
SAM RENICK: Good morning boys and girls!
KIDS: Good morning!
RENICK: Good morning boys and girls!
That's what it sounded like one morning at KIPP Raices Academy in East Los Angeles. About 40 kids, Kindergarteners and second graders, crowded into one small classroom to hear about Sammy the Rabbit, who makes saving a habit. He's the creation of author, and guest speaker, Sam Renick.
RENICK: I discovered a few years ago that there's a big problem. It's that kids and their parents are not saving money. Everybody say: saving money helps us!
KIDS REPEAT EACH WORD INDIVIDUALLY: Saving money helps us all.
VIGELAND: The principal at KIPP Raices, Amber Young, launched the public charter school's new money education program earlier this year.
AMBER YOUNG: I think if you start instilling the importance of saving beginning at that age, it just becomes a part of who they are and how they think. So we're not getting into detailed concepts quite yet about budgeting. But pennies piling up over time, that's a concept that our students can really grasp.
RENICK: Now go like this saving: Saving is a great, great habit. Sammy Rabbit!
KIDS REPEAT EACH WORD INDIVIDUALLY: Saving is a great, great habit. Sammy Rabbit!
RENICK: OK, everybody give yourselves a little round of applause. All right here we go chapter two. Sammy, a habit is a choice we repeat again, again and again. Saving is easy when we make it a habit. When is saving easy? When we make it a what?
KIDS: A habit.
The idea for focusing on financial education came from a chance meeting at a local farmers' market about a year ago. Principal Young was introduced to Jesse Torres, the CEO of East L.A.'s Pan American Bank. Torres is on a mission to get more of the city's unbanked population, especially Latino families, to use banks instead of the mattress.
JESSE TORRES: For years we had tried to bring financial literacy to the adults. And there is a lot of truth to the notion that you can't teach an old dog a new trick. And what we decided to do was focus on the kids. And so our approach has been to go out to the communities that we serve and focus on the kids at the youngest age, at the pre-K and working all the way up through high school.
So Pan American Bank opens bank accounts for the kids. Starts them off with a $5 deposit, gives them tours of the vault, and then follows up by helping pay for financial literacy training like the Sammy Rabbit class.
TORRES: The thought is to get them into that mindset of becoming savers, of setting up goals in their minds -- whether that goal is college education, whether it's saving for a home, for a car, whatever it might be, a bicycle.
RENICK: You can do it. Now let's get to it. From every dollar, save a dime.
KIDS REPEAT EACH PHRASE INDIVIDUALLY: You can do it. Now let's get to it. From every dollar, save a dime.
[Kids clap and sing a song]
Author Sam Renick has an actual sidekick, a costumed Sammy Rabbit who draws squeals from the kids when he appears. Renick has taken the saving message to 35 states and read to more than a quarter of a million kids. He says the younger, the better.
RENICK: I've had principals who will share with me, if you don't reach kids early, by the time they get to middle school, it's too late. Everything is up for grabs there. So you want all of their thinking -- education-wise, money-wise, values-wise -- cemented because they're gonna be tested in middle school.
They'll be tested in middle school and beyond by a barrage of messages about spending, which is why Principal Young says the school will follow up Sammy's saving lesson with classes about needs versus wants. So, what did the kids learn from Sam-Sam the Money Man, as Renick calls himself?
VIGELAND: What's your name?
VIGELAND: And how old are you?
VIGELAND: 5. You're in Kindergarten. What did you learn today?
JESEYA: Don't waste your money.
VIGELAND: Don't waste your money. That's a good one. OK how about you? What's your name? How old are you?
HANNAH: My name is Hannah and I'm 7.
VIGELAND: And you're 7. What did you learn today?
HANNAH: I learned that you should save stuff.
VIGELAND: Right. So who here remembers how much out of every dollar you should save? What's your name?
ANGEL: Angel Carrasco. I'm 7 years old.
VIGELAND: So how much out of every dollar are you supposed to save?
ANGEL: One dime.
VIGELAND: One dime, that's right. Does that sound easy or hard?
VIGELAND: Easy? Is that something you'll be able to do? Are you doing it already?
ANGEL: Yes. I have $100. I have $100 in my bank account.
KID: Wow. That's a lot.
VIGELAND: Good for you. So Sammy would be very impressed with you.
As would, frankly, most of us.
RENICK: All right, everybody give Sammy a big round of applause. Sammy, wave goodbye to everybody. You guys have a great day. Remember: Sammy says save your money and make lots of big dreams come true. All right. Have a wonderful day.