High school students may have seen a checkbook and even have bank accounts of their own, but the likelihood they’ll be exchanging a rectangular scrap of paper for a bag of groceries is low.
As a result, those designing financial literacy courses for students are focusing more on the digital world, from social media influences on spending to the apps students use to reimburse each other after hanging out together over the weekend.
“Even if teachers, parents and staff feel comfortable writing checks, the reality for our students is they will likely never write a physical check,” says Yanely Espinal, director of partnerships and educational outreach for Next Gen Personal Finance. “So we have to make sure we’re spending proportional time where they will be spending their time.”
In a predominantly cashless, app-driven world, students need financial lessons that mirror the way they pay for meals, buy books or will handle student loans in the future.
For many, that likely means using Venmo, PayPal or other mobile payment services rather than exchanging cash or sending a check. From 2000 to 2015, paper check use by consumers steadily declined 63% from 19.3 billion checks to 7.1 billion, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.
Educators and curriculum designers are looking at ways they can teach young people how to manage their future finances from pocket-sized computers. That’s because knowing how to budget for the month, pay bills or invest for retirement requires the same basic skills — whether you’re paying for a morning coffee and bagel using Apple Pay or a $10 bill.
Here are three approaches educators can use to relay the basics of financial literacy to students today.
Social media and behavioral economics
With students spending an average of 4.5 hours daily on social media, digital financial literacy courses are key. All of Next Gen's free courses and materials, from teacher materials to the lessons themselves, are accessible from a computer.
Educators can assign students simulations and games designed to teach them about investing in the stock market. And short videos, published weekly, are anchored with a five-question quiz. Subjects are geared toward topics impacting Generation Z, from TikTok and the influence of social media to cryptocurrency.
Each of the 12 units is tied to the Council for Economic Education's personal financial literacy standards, says Espinal, offering multiple ways for educators to jump in with their middle and high school students. In addition to full lesson plans, teachers can download a single case study or sign up for NGPF’s professional development courses.
One of the newer units is on behavioral economics, helping students understand why they may be drawn to buy something they see on social media platforms like Instagram or TikTok. Espinal notes learners may not be aware of how their brain reacts when they spy a new dress on a celebrity, who is also hawking the garment from her page.
“Essentially, this is about the psychology of money,” she says. “So students can learn how to take back control and understand the biases they face.”
You can’t overdraft your apps
Knowing how to budget is also important for students, and apps can make that more difficult. Older generations may have withdrawn cash each month and placed those bills into envelopes to help them budget their spending.
But as Nan Morrison, president and CEO of the Council for Economic Education, points out, it’s much easier to become overdrawn when digital dollars are spent across multiple financial apps, as there isn’t an empty envelope facing you.
“In today’s world, knowing how you spend your money and how you’d like to spend your money is important,” she says. “If you’re not using cash or one account, and can check how much money you’ve spent, it’s easy to get nabbed on an overdraft or start getting charged interest on a credit card.”
CEE hosts online resources designed for educators working with K-12 students. There are lessons on compound interest and how to set a savings goal, as well as videos and quizzes on buying for credit and budgeting. Educators who sign up for a free membership can also gain access to professional development webinars.
Morrison offers up an offline lesson that teachers can turn to, as well — and one her parents used with her. As a child, she had a drawer filled with her Halloween candy, which her parents treated as a bank account. She could take no more than one piece each day, and was reminded that if she skipped one, the candy would last longer.
No matter how educators choose to teach students about financial literacy — whether it’s an online video or a physical drawer of treats — the key is to help learners understand these concepts at a young age, she says.
“It’s important to start [financial lessons] very young,” says Morrison. “They need to hear the words. It’s like any language acquisition, the more you hear about it, the better you’re going to get.”
Stock trading with a super computer
One thing Anand Marri, who helped to create the Cowin Financial Literacy Program at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York, wants students to get better at is taking a beat before they use their mobile devices when making financial decisions.
He knows information such as how the stock market or bitcoin are performing is delivered to devices at rapid speeds, and that can be dangerous — especially as consumers start to make choices about investments and other financial assets for their future.
“If you see a stock go up 5% in the morning and decide you should buy it, that’s the exact opposite of what you should do,” says Marri.
The Cowin Financial Literacy Program serves up free online professional development courses for educators through eight case studies that cover subjects from taxes to retirement, each with a teacher’s guide. Marri, who is now dean of Ball State University’s Teachers College in Indiana but still contributes to the Cowin program, hopes the courses help educators overcome their own hesitancy around economics and finance so they can transfer their learning to students. That could include helping learners figure out how much of their monthly budget to spend on rent, or the costs and benefits of attending a private university versus a community college.
The goal of the program is not to guide students toward careers in finance, or steep them or their teachers in fiscal minutiae, but to help build the tools to successfully manage their financial lives and gain confidence to navigate these steps going forward.
“We do not necessarily want to create junior economists,” he says. “But it is important that young people learn how to take charge of their economic well-being.”