Many millennials feel schools failed to teach them about money—these schools are trying to give Gen Z a better start

I feel like schools failed millennials: Here's how they're teaching Gen Z about money
I feel like schools failed millennials: Here's how they're teaching Gen Z about money

I got a 4.5 GPA in high school and graduated from UCLA, my dream college, in 2011. I accomplished exactly what society told me I needed to do to set myself up for success. I was on top of the world!   

Then I graduated, and spent 12 of the next 24 months unemployed. The rest of the time, I worked $10/hour internships. I was living at home with my parents, on food stamps, and depressed.

That experience made me realize what I wish I learned in school: How to make and manage money.

Like me, many millennials felt betrayed when we graduated. We went into a lot of student debt, only to find out that college doesn't guarantee the American dream. We're the most educated generation, but worse off financially than our parents. 

After graduating from my dream school, I was unemployed for a year, living at home with my parents, on food stamps and depressed.
Helen Zhao | CNBC

Yanely Espinal, director of educational outreach at Next Gen Personal Finance, had the same revelation after graduating from Brown University in 2011. She was living paycheck-to-paycheck just like her immigrant parents, who never finished elementary school. "I think a lot of people do feel that the education system did fail them, especially for millennials," the 32-year-old says.

On average, 18-to 34-year-olds can correctly answer only about 2.5 out of six key financial literacy questions, according to FINRA's 2018 National Financial Capability Study. Only 17% of people in that age group could answer four or more questions correctly, down from 30% who could in 2009.

Experts say thriving in today's world demands more than a college degree. Living in America is increasingly sink or swim, as seen by the widening gap between rich and poor. Essential expenses have gotten more expensive, while wage growth has been negligible.

Consumers also have easier access to a broader array of financial products, including complicated investments and loans. That's why experts say you've got to be savvier than ever at making money and managing risk.

"There are all these new choices we have to make, which by and large our parents and grandparents never had to think about," says Olivia Mitchell, a professor of business economics and public policy at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.   

Personal finance teacher Marina White teaches Canyon High School seniors in Santa Clarita, California, a lesson on investing and the power of compound interest.
Helen Zhao | CNBC

Now high schools are scrambling to better prepare Gen Z for the real world.

The number of states that require or will soon require students to take a semester of personal finance to graduate has doubled in the last three years, from 5 to 11. Utah was the first state to require a semester-long personal finance course, starting with the class of 2008. In March, Florida became the latest, and largest, state to require students to take a semester of personal finance to graduate.

In the 2020-21 academic year, 7 out of 10 public high school students had access to a full-semester of personal finance, as an elective or graduation requirement, according to Next Gen Personal Finance. That's up from 2 out of 3 the school year before.

Here's how the financial literacy gap affected millennials, and what high schools are doing about it.  

'Poverty is passed on from generation to generation unless that curse is broken'

I never learned about money at home, because my parents immigrated to the U.S. focused on assimilating and simply getting by financially. They didn't learn about personal finance either, while growing up extremely poor in China. Their upbringing meant changing clothing once every couple months, fantasizing about eating meat and eggs, and even sleeping in a cave some nights while forced to work as peasants in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution.

Like me, not everyone grows up in a financially savvy household. That's why financial literacy advocates are fighting for students to learn personal finance in school. Many of the students who need it most aren't learning it at home.

My parents, brother and I pose for a family photo in the 90s.
Courtesy Helen Zhao

Only 15% of parents speak to their kids about household finances more than once a week, according to a recent CNBC + Acorns Invest in You survey. One quarter of parents talk to their kids about money less than once a month — and one third of parents never do.

"Poverty is passed on from generation to generation unless that curse is broken by teaching money and prosperity," says Edwin Gomez, superintendent of schools for Riverside County in Southern California. "You can be financially free. There are many ways of making money that isn't just a job."  

NGPF's Espinal grew up poor in Brooklyn after her parents immigrated from the Dominican Republic with very little formal education. She was supposed to be her parents' ticket to a better life, she says, after graduating from an Ivy League school on a full-scholarship in 2011. But as a teacher in her mid-20s, she was struggling to pay off $20,000 in credit card debt, help her family, and make ends meet each month.

Yanely Espinal
Yanely Espinal

That's when she began learning how to pay off and avoid debt. "I was like, oh my goodness, there are some very simple steps and strategies. How come no one ever told me that?" Espinal says. "That was a lightbulb moment. I have to devote my career to demanding better financial literacy."

Now Espinal meets with politicians, lobbyists, and community members to advocate for legislation requiring students to learn personal finance in school, in her role as an advocate for the Next Gen Personal Finance Mission 2030 Fund. As a Miami resident, she played a major role in Florida's new personal finance education mandate.

'Geometry isn't going to make me a millionaire'

Increasingly, high schools are teaching teenagers key money management skills I wish I learned growing up.

I met 17- and 18-year-old seniors at Canyon High School in Santa Clarita, California, who are already making strides toward their short-term and long-term financial goals. They're learning about saving, budgeting, debt, investing, careers and more while taking a semester of personal finance. The class fulfills a math requirement, but is not required to graduate.

Ryan Leskin used to spend at least $30-$40/day dining out. Now he has cut that to just about $50/week, swapping convenience food runs for grocery store trips. He's saving money to be able to invest in the stock market.

Ryan Leskin started budgeting for the first time while taking personal finance at Canyon High School.
Helen Zhao | CNBC

Genesis Gonzalez is teaching her parents how to save and budget more effectively. "Sometimes my mom goes on shopping sprees on Amazon," Gonzalez says. "She realizes she can save a lot more money rather than spending hundreds of dollars on things we don't need."

Joshua Frenya says personal finance is one of the most valuable classes he's taking. "I don't think geometry is going to make me a millionaire to be honest," he says.

Canyon High School started its first personal finance class in 2015, thanks to former teacher, Kim Arnold, who got the school district on board, and local personal finance advocate Brendie Heter, who donated the necessary funds for the curriculum and textbooks.

Genesis Gonzalez is teaching her parents lessons she's learning in personal finance class at Canyon High School.
Helen Zhao | CNBC

By 2018, all nine high schools in the William Hart School District began offering a semester-long personal finance course. A 10th district high school, opened in 2019 with only a ninth-grade cohort, will have its first seniors next year — and run its first personal finance class to benefit them.

Heter's adult personal finance students inspired her to help fund these classes. "We felt the demand and the voice of regret from the adults," she says.

"The repeating mantra over and over again from parents is, 'I wish that they taught this in high school. I wish I would have learned this earlier' — almost kind of angry. So my husband and I sat down and we roped in some other sponsors and partners in town and said, 'let's do something about it.'"

The article "I think schools failed millennials when it comes to real-world money education. Here’s how they’re prepping Gen Z for success″ was originally published on Grow (CNBC + Acorns).

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