One Writer`s Perspective

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Published: August 28,2000

The board game “Life” was one of my favorites growing up. Remember how there were choices right from the start you had to make, such as whether to go to college or straight to work or whether to buy automobile insurance or not? It didn’t take but a couple of “lifetimes” to learn that the best strategy was to say yes to both college and insurance – at the end of the game, they paid off.

But there was that allure of easy money. If, somewhere down the road, you ran into financial difficulty, there were always promissory notes. At $20,000 a pop, the terms of the loan were extremely generous — no collateral, not even any forms to fill out. All you had to do was have the need and you were back in the game.

It wasn’t until the end of the game —“Day of Reckoning” — that the promissory notes became a real problem. At that point, if you were holding debt you couldn’t pay off, you’re only choice was to try for “Instant Tycoon.” The player would take whatever they did own — usually their car (with family inside) — put it all on one number and spin. If your number came up, you won instantly. If not, you walked to the poor house. The fate of your spouse and offspring was interpretive.

How unfortunate it is that “Life” reflects the real thing today. Our kids and young adults are faced with a life of credit cards in every mailbox and seemingly easy and attractive bankruptcy laws. And they begin this journey largely uninformed and ignorant that one day, somewhere along life’s journey, there will be a time of financial atonement.

Fortunately, the Mississippi Legislature passed a law that requires personal finance skills training for our young people in grade school, and a new coalition has been formed to assist our schools in those efforts.

In 1999, our legislators approved House Bill 820. HB 820 requires all secondary schools to offer courses on personal money management skills. The law states, “The State Board of Education shall adopt and maintain a curriculum and a course of study to be used in the public schools that is designed to prepare the state’s children and youth to be productive, informed, creative citizens, workers and leaders.” The law requires instruction in opening a checking account and assessing the quality of banking services, balancing a check book, managing retail and credit card debt, completing a loan application, the implications of inheritance, the basics of personal insurance policies, computing state and federal income taxes, computing interest rates, understanding simple contracts and contesting incorrect billing statements.

I think our state leaders should be applauded for their foresight. Mississippi is one of only a handful of states in the nation to put such a law on the books.

There is, however, a potential glitch — how much time can an already overloaded educational system devote to teaching personal finance skills, and what resources and knowledge do our teachers possess to offer accurate and insightful instruction to their classes? Answers to these questions may be at hand.

On Aug. 31, leaders from both the public and private sector will be on hand for a press conference and the launching of a public awareness campaign by the Mississippi Jumpstart Coalition. The press conference will begin at 9 a.m. in the rotunda of the sate capitol.

The Jumpstart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy is a national organization established in 20 states aimed at evaluating literacy of young adults, developing, disseminating and encouraging the use of guidelines for grades K-12 and promoting the teaching of personal finance. It has such national supporters as Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, Discover, Toyota Motor Credit Corporation, Bank of America, VISA U.S.A. Inc., MasterCard and the American Bankers Association.

As of May 2000, the Mississippi Jumpstart Coalition also had some impressive backers. These include Mississippi-based banks BancorpSouth and Trustmark, the Federal Reserve Bank and the FDIC, the offices of the attorney general, lieutenant governor and secretary of state, the Mississippi State University Extension Service and the Credit Counseling Centers of Greater New Orleans (Hattiesburg office) and Jackson.

What the Mississippi chapter wants to become is a clearinghouse for resources in personal finance instruction, to offer materials to supplement the state’s standards for disciplines such as economics, family and consumer science and business. These resources include brochures (free or at low cost), as well as a Web site — www.jumpstartcoalition.org — that offers videos in a searchable database by grade, title, key word or topic and teachers’ guides. In addition, it features a listing of speakers, news items from around the nation on personal finance literacy issues and trends, helpful links as well as information on the coalition itself.

I don’t think there’s ever been a better time to start focusing on our children’s personal finance education than now. The state is in the midst of revamping our economic development with the goal of putting more money in the pockets of our succeeding generations. More money means more decisions and more responsibility. If those higher salaries are frittered away due to poorly-formed personal finance skills, what is the advantage gained?

In the game “Life,” if you reach the end of the line and lose everything, there’s always next time. In the real game of life, we don’t get a second chance. Choices and decisions made as children and young adults are critical to future success.

As William Randolph Hearst once said, “One of the hardest things to teach our children about money matters is that it does.”

Wally Northway is a staff writer for the Mississippi Business Journal. His e-mail address is northway@msbusiness.com.


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