That is a classic question I get all of the time. Most recently, it came from a teacher at Libby Elementary in Chicago, Illinois. She teaches our Money Savvy Kids curriculum to the low-income elementary students in her class. Here is her question:
“This is the third year I have taught the program and always struggle w/explaining the purpose of investing to children whose parents are on welfare. Often the role of short-term vs. long-term goals is hard for them to comprehend, so investing is incomprehensible. Has this ever been addressed?”
I answered her–as I answer everyone who asks this question–with my life story. It’s why I do the work I do today.
Here’s what I told her:
Allow me to tell you a personal story to help me fully answer your (often-asked) question:
I grew up on the Southside of Chicago in the 1970s. My family was not on welfare, but we struggled. My father went to 14 different high schools and eventually got his GED before he married my mother. He was 18 years old. My mom was a homemaker. My grandmother lived with us in her own apartment above ours in the West Eldson neighborhood.
Investing was a concept that my grandmother introduced to me early, about the time I was in middle school.
My grandmother, who came to live with us after my grandfather died at the young age of 54, was working and living paycheck to paycheck. She did not have money to buy stocks and the concept of investing was completely foreign to her.
However, she remembered that during the Depression, homes in our neighborhood were selling at drastically reduced prices–as low as $10,000. She told me that when opportunity knocked, she did not have the money to take advantage of that low price.
She wished she had saved more so she would have been ready to buy when housing prices were so low. She wished someone had told her about the importance of saving.
She was determined that I would learn that lesson from her. She taught me that saving from an early age is important if you want to be ready for opportunity when it comes knocking!
To make sure the lesson got through to me, she even drove me through the neighborhoods where homes had sold at fire-sale prices – pointing out the ones that she would have considered. I never forgot that trip through my neighborhood, and I knew I would be ready if that opportunity came up again. I would not let her down!
I was the first person to graduate from college in my family. When I got my first job, the Human Resources person explained that one “savings” option available to me was to have a percentage of my paycheck swept automatically into my 401(k) where my money was matched by my employer up to a certain percentage.
My grandmother’s lesson on savings came rushing back to me. My new employer explained that NOT putting money in my 401(k) meant I would be “leaving money on the table”…the match from the company. I could see that this benefit was my opportunity to save and to invest. I signed up immediately.
It was at this point in my life that my grandmother’s lessons on savings became the platform for deciding to invest when I got my first job. If I had not remembered that drive through our neighborhood, I might not have seen the 410(k) benefit as enticing enough. Instead, I might have been tempted to spend that money for immediate gratification –on new clothes to go with my new job.
Bottom line: To climb out of the cycle of poverty, we need to teach children to think both short- and long-term about the money they will earn.
Financial education is a civil right, one that every single person is entitled to, not just those who have money to invest or parents who will help them learn how to work with money.
Your students may not be able to use the financial literacy education you are giving them today. But one day they will be in that position. They will have jobs. They will make money. And they will harken back to the financial literacy education you gave them.
You are giving them what my grandmother gave me – the education they will need when they have money choices to make later in life.
Once they make that choice to invest and delay spending, they become more interested in investing because they have skin in the game – their own money.
Long story – I know – but this is how it plays out. Over time – a long time. We teach them these skills because we refuse to believe that the circumstances they have been born into define their lives. We just need to keep reminding ourselves of that so we continue to teach them all they need to not only survive, but to thrive, later in life.