SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Who says teens aren't smart about money?
In Chad Posner's economics classes at Sacramento's Mira Loma High School, his students are scoring off the charts when it comes to financial savvy.
On a recent national financial literacy exam, nearly half of his 84 students scored in the top 10 percent. One of those, 18-year-old Angela Liu scored a perfect 100 percent on the 40-question online test, whose results were released in April by the U.S. Treasury.
Despite its clunky-sounding name, the National Financial Capability Challenge has a clear-eyed goal: to increase high schoolers' knowledge and impress upon teachers, parents and students the need for deeper understanding of basic financial concepts.
Liu, whose parents are Chinese immigrants, said many of the test questions are "common-sense" subjects that go beyond textbook economics. The senior said personal finance is "not just memorizing facts" but learning "real life" skills that everyone should know.
Apparently, she and her classmates know them well. Combined, Posner's classes scored 86 percent, compared with 69 percent for U.S. teens overall.
Last fall, in launching a financial literacy push, FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair said, "Teaching young people how to handle their finances ... isn't a luxury in today's economy. It is essential."
That's what Posner preaches to his three classes of 17- and 18-year-olds. Students, he said, are "very receptive" to class instruction on personal finances. "They want to learn about this stuff. Money is important to them."
Posner, who worked several years as a financial planner, covers lots of real-life topics: Insurance. Credit and debt. FICO scores. College savings. Investing. Retirement.
He also lets his students solve real-life money problems, loosely based on his former clients. For instance, what's the best use of $500 in monthly savings for a young couple with no children who have a condo mortgage, credit card debt, a car loan, life insurance and no retirement plan? Often, he says, there are no right or wrong answers, but the scenarios let students think through the kind of money management choices they'll be facing in a few years.
"Kids too often go out into the real world totally unprepared for things that will affect their everyday lives: using a credit card or not using their 401(k) because they don't know what the heck it is," said Posner, who already has his 11-year-old son set up with a 529 college savings plan and an individual retirement account. "The sooner they know this stuff the better, so they won't have to declare bankruptcy in their 20s and will be better prepared for their own retirement."
With so many families battered by the economy's recent turmoil, the recession has definitely left its mark on teens' perceptions of money, according to a survey of 16-to-18-year-olds released last week by the Charles Schwab Foundation. The vast majority said the recession affected their family, either "a lot" (38 percent) or "a little" (55 percent).
As a result, 58 percent said they are "less likely to ask for things they want." And more than half the teens surveyed - 56 percent - reported having a greater appreciation for how hard their parents work. (Thanks, Mom and Dad!)
But the survey also revealed gaps. It showed, for instance, that most teens know exactly what an iPad costs, but not enough about car insurance or how to handle such basics as writing a check or managing credit card fees.
Notably, parents were cited in several recent surveys of high school and college-age students as the best source on financial how-tos. As a common family conversation topic, money management was No. 4, wedged somewhere between "cleaning my room" and dating/sex, according to the Schwab survey.
"It's critically important that families have more conversations about money, savings, investment and debt management," because those topics are "not taught in schools on a regular basis," noted Schwab Foundation president Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, who sits on President Obama's financial literacy advisory council.
One of Posner's students, Emily Flato, an only child born in China, said her parents often discuss financial decisions with her at home, such as whether they can afford a new car or have enough cash in the bank to buy a backyard barbecue.
When Posner had a class lesson on the basics of refinancing a home loan to lower long-term interest costs, Princeton-bound Liu said she went home and urged her mother to consider refinancing. "She told me she'd already done it: three times."
Ultimately, the recession's turmoil could yield a "silver lining" among young adults, said Schwab-Pomerantz. Compared with 2007, more students in the survey said they recognized the need for emergency savings, were spending less per week and had set aside larger amounts of savings - an average of $996.
Flato, one of 50 high-scoring students nationwide who was picked in a U.S. Treasury-sponsored lottery to receive a $1,000 college scholarship, said she intends to open a separate savings account that'll be dedicated to "saving for college, not for shopping."
Taking the test: Teen money smarts
Officially called the National Financial Capability Challenge, the 40-question online test was given this spring to 84,372 teens nationwide by classroom teachers who volunteered to participate. Here's a snapshot of students' results:
-National average score: 69 percent
-Number of students in Top 20 percent: 18,192
-Number of perfect scores: 563
-States with highest average scores: Idaho, Vermont, South Dakota, Oregon, Maine
1. If you deposit $1,000 in a savings account with a fixed annual interest rate of 5 percent, how much will you have after two years with no additional deposits/withdrawals?
-A. Exactly $100
-B. Exactly $1,100
-C. Less than $1,100
-D. More than $1,100
2. Which is the most diversified investment?
-A. A gold coin
-B. A company stock
-C. A municipal bond
-D. A stock mutual fund
3. Person A adds $250 a year to her mutual fund for 10 years. Person B decides to wait 10 years when he can invest a lump sum of $2,500. If both earn an average 7 percent return, who will have the larger balance in 20 years?
-A. Person A, because she saved a little each year
-B. Person B, because his starting amount is larger
-C. Person A, because her money has grown for a longer time at compound interest
-D. They would have the same because they invested the same amount of money
4. You have $400 in the bank and $50 in your wallet. You owe $3,000 on a car that is worth $4,000. Your other personal possessions are worth a total of $2,000. You take home $800 per week from your job. Your wealth (or net worth) equals:
5. What is an advantage of a fixed-rate mortgage over a variable-rate mortgage?
-A. Fixed-rate mortgages generally have lower interest rates
-B. Fixed-rate mortgages require lower down payments
-C. Fixed-rate mortgages have interest rates that stay the same, but variable-rate payments may increase
-D. Fixed-rate mortgages generally are written for a shorter period of time than variable-rate mortgages
Answers: 1. D 2. D 3. C 4. B 5. C
Teens and money: by the numbers
-Average amount of savings: $966
-Average spending per week: $18.50
-Income sources: Job (67 percent); allowance (34 percent); gifts (59 percent)
-Have a savings account: 58 percent (vs. 72 percent in 2007)
-Have a checking account: 51 percent (vs. 75 percent in 2007)
Money Talks: Resources for teens/parents
-State Dept. of Education: Lists K-12 resources for parents, teachers and students. Search under "Financial Literacy" at http://www.cde.ca.gov
-MyMoney.gov: The U.S. government's financial education site with links to info for every age, from kids to retirees.
-SchwabMoneyWise.com: Easy-to-use money basics, quizzes and games for kids and teens. Also has parent advice, including how to discuss finances with your children, from toddlers to 20-somethings.
-MoneyTalks4Teens: Sponsored by University of California Cooperative Extension, it's a teen-friendly bilingual site that covers credit cards, college loans, banking, etc. It's at http://moneytalks4teens.ucdavis.edu
Source: Bee research
Having the money talk
When it comes to money, who is the biggest influence on teens? Parents. That's according to a recent survey of U.S. teens.
About 82 percent reported learning money management skills from parents, compared with "real-life" experience (65 percent) or school (49 percent); 77 percent say Mom and Dad are "great" role models.