Financial Literacy: The One Course That High Schools Should Teach

What would you do if you won the lottery?

Jon and I have always talked about running a charitable foundation when (HA!) we win zillions on MegaBall. Jon wants to fund community college scholarships, but I’ve always wanted to promote a financial literacy course for public high school students.

(Yes, we occasionally make a charitable donation to the NC Education Lottery. Sometimes kicking up the fantasy life is worth a buck.)

I was over at brokeGIRLrich and was making a comment about her article 4 Money Saving Tips You Should Have Learned in School.  That got me thinking about my hypothetical foundation, and what exactly I would be promoting. What would a financial literacy course look like?

I’m sure it would include the 4 things Mel mentioned: goal setting, self care, paying bills on time, and how to educate yourself on financial matters. I think the course I’d want high school students to take would be a little more complicated and cover credit, debt, job searching skills, and identity protection.

So what would the ideal financial literacy course do? What would it achieve?

Why We Need to be Teaching a Financial Literacy Course to High Schoolers

There’s no doubt in my mind that Americans need to introduce financial literacy in the basic curriculum of public schools. Too many people make it into adulthood without a working knowledge of budgeting, interest rates, or even the knowledge of how to behave in a job interview.

Our kids have a lot of things to learn by the time they graduate high school: good writing skills, great literature, how to survive on cafeteria food.  For a lot of schools financial literacy just isn’t part of the curriculum that has been deemed necessary for our kids’ success. As much as I love STEM, financial literacy needs to be part of the curriculum too.

The schools assume that kids learn these skills at home, the parents assume the kids learn these skills at school, and the kids learn whatever they learn mostly on their own.

As a parent, I understand I have a responsibility to teach my child financial responsibility. Not every parent is equipped to do that, though, any more than I could teach my child calculus or computer programming.

Why should my kid be able to conjugate verbs but not fill out a W-4? (Other than that she’s 5, of course. But eventually, she’ll be 18 and correct tax withholding will be more important than the present indicative.)

My Own School Experiences with Financial Literacy in School

I recall one (and only one) practical lesson in financial literacy the entire time I was in school: my sixth grade math teacher handed us each a 1040 and said “Fill it out.”

This could have been a good lesson. We might have learned a lot if she had taken the step of handing us each a sample W-2 and a “family” scenario to base our return on.  If she had discussed the assignment whatsoever, we might have learned something. Instead, everyone had to completely make up all of the numbers they put on the form and navigate with IRS instructions.

What fun.

That one assignment, filling out tax forms with no references whatsoever, ended any interest I might have had in pursuing a career in accounting. (Okay, it never crossed my mind once. I was 12. I wanted to be Ambassador to Great Britain or possibly something in movies.)

When I got my MBA 30 years later, Accounting was my favorite subject. Who knew?

I did take Economics in college. Unfortunately, my understanding of guns versus butter tradeoffs didn’t help me avoid high credit card debt, influence me to start investing in my early 20s or train me how to effectively search for a job.

I’m not sure what was taught later, either, but I’m not sure how much it was improved. I seemed to spend a lot of time during my bookstore management days coaching my employees through basic paperwork like how to fill out a W-4 or explaining how compound interest worked.

These were smart kids who could discuss Russian literature or Maslow’s theories with ease, but they hadn’t figured out that making minimum credit card payments was costing them tons of money in accrued interest.

They just had never been taught.  That was more than 10 years ago, when the average student loan debt was only $17,233. Now it’s around $29,000. Medical costs keep rising, and social security seems destined for cuts as the Baby Boomers age.

Financial literacy is more important than ever.

What would a High School Financial Literacy Course Teach?

So if I was going to promote a financial literacy curriculum, what would it look like?

There are some established curriculums, but it’s no fun to just rehash those. If I was starting from scratch, here’s what I think the ideal financial literacy course for high school kids would look like:

First Quarter: Money and Debt

Understanding your money:

  • Income, expenses, and basic budgeting.
  • Discuss methods of saving money on regular expenses, like couponing and evaluating price per unit.
  • Banks, checking accounts and checkbook balancing, and banking fees.
  • Money saving apps and information resources on money topics.

Understanding debt (with some additional info on college costs):

  • Credit scores and reports and how they can impact your life.
  • How to get and maintain a good credit score.
  • Interest rates, compounding, and the time value of money.
  • Intro to loans: Credit cards and credit card debt, mortgages, and car loans.
  • College Costs: Student loans and student loan repayment, FAFSA (the Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and scholarship applications.

Second Quarter: Identity and Investing

Identity protection:

  • Protecting yourself and your information. What to do if you are a victim of identity theft.
  • Your social media presence and its impact.

Saving and investing:

  • How to save money: emergency funds, Retirement accounts, brokerage accounts.
  • Investment growth over time/More Time Value of Money. Inflation.
  • How to fill out enrollment forms.
  • How to read prospectuses. Investment fees.
  • How the stock market works (with simulation game).
  • Mutual funds, bonds, and other investments.
  • Insurance basics.

Third Quarter: Job skills and Taxes

Job skills:

  • Resume writing, job applications, cover letters, thank you letters and email etiquette.
  • Job search tips.
  • Professional dress and behavior. Interviewing skills (and practice).
  • Networking and negotiating basics.
  • How to fill out W-4s and I-9s.

Tax basics:

  • W-2s, filing requirements, filing statuses, deductions and exemptions,
  • How to fill out a 1040EZ.
  • Deadlines and penalties.

Fourth Quarter: Consumer Topics


  • Insurance, premiums, copays, HSAs, preventative care.
  • How to read an EOB.


  • Car insurance,
  • Maintenance costs and schedules,
  • New versus used. Back to car loans.

Real Estate:

  • Buying versus renting and cost of ownership.
  • Inspections and estimates.
  • Back to mortgages, including down payments and PMI.

It would be a great class for community interactions and year-long projects. Make the kids turn in their budget versus actual each month. Run an investment contest.  Get HR professionals to do practice interviews and critiques, or talk about what they look for in cover letters and resumes. Bring in someone from the local college’s Financial Aid Office to talk costs, aid and FAFSA.

Best of all, kids would get practical skills. Maybe all that knowledge would end up forgotten immediately, like my 11th grade Chemistry. I think, though, that the students would be far more likely to run into these concepts and need to use the knowledge a lot more often than I need to know the atomic weight of silver (which I know, thanks to Google, is 107.8682.)

This is what I would promote if I had a zillion dollars. This is what I wish I’d known when I entered adulthood. This is what I’ll try to make sure my kid knows when she graduates from high school, 13 years from now.

Budget, Save and invest. Understand debt and taxes. Protect your identity. Learn how to make money. Be a smart consumer.

Sounds like a good foundation in financial literacy to me.

What would you want included in a financial literacy course? What was your best financial lesson in school? 

Part of Frugal Friday  

16 Responses to “Financial Literacy: The One Course That High Schools Should Teach”
    • Emily Jividen 11/04/2015
  1. Mel @ brokeGIRLrich 11/04/2015
    • Emily Jividen 11/04/2015
    • Emily Jividen 11/05/2015
    • Emily Jividen 11/08/2015
  2. femmefrugality 11/08/2015
    • Emily Jividen 11/09/2015
  3. Lux 11/10/2015
    • Emily Jividen 11/10/2015
    • Emily Jividen 11/17/2015
  4. Latoya S 12/01/2015
    • Emily Jividen 12/01/2015

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