Personal finance classes offer real-world lessons

April 16, 2014

By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer 

Magna Vista High School sophomore Jason Adkins said he is a big video game player, but he may be buying fewer video games from now on. 

Jason is a student in Teresa Harkness’ economics and personal finance class at Magna Vista, one of several such classes offered there. The class is a graduation requirement for students who entered ninth grade in the 2011-12 school year.

In the class, Jason said, “I’ve learned how to set goals.” 

For example, he said, he has learned how to save money and use it wisely.

Buying something you don’t need is an example of wasteful spending, which can hurt a person or his family if he has more pressing needs, Jason said. 

And that’s where video games fit in.

“I’m a big video game player,” he said. But as a result of this class, “I’ll look more at buying food and clothing and not as much at buying video games.” 

He also said that after a recent lesson on how to calculate take-home pay, in the future when he gets a job, he will double-check his pay stubs to make sure the amounts taken out were figured correctly.

Fellow students Morgan Hankins, Kristina Nguyen and Amber Turner also said they are learning a lot in the class that they think will help them in the future, such as how to research and apply for jobs; various types of insurance; credit ratings; types of economic systems; and budgeting and managing money. 

“Before this class, I didn’t know how to manage anything,” Kristina said.

Morgan, Kristina and Amber said they like how Harkness interacts with students and explains how to do things, and that she gives lots of personal examples. 

On a recent Tuesday, Harkness explained such things as gross and net pay; filing status (single, married, etc.); pay frequency; and various deductions (including federal and state income, Social Security and Medicare taxes), along with calculation formulas or tables. She explained regular pay and overtime.

She asked students questions, and vice versa, and she had them do calculations based on several scenarios. Students also developed bar graphs. 

“I had no idea it was that much and so many categories until today,” Amber said of payroll deductions.

Harkness said the class “pretty much introduces them (students) to life.” She added that although it may be a number of years before they put some of the principles they are learning into practice, it lays a foundation and helps them understand the financial realities their parents are going through now. 

She said she is trying to help her students take personal responsibility, rather than have a sense of entitlement.

For example, Harkness previously told her students that after she graduated from college, got her first job and was living at home with her parents, they told her they would match whatever amount she put up for a down payment for a car. With their money pooled, the down payment was substantial and her car payment on a used Chevrolet Camaro was $98 a month for 12 months, she said. 

Teenagers generally want a car, she said. “Your parents don’t have to buy you a car. ... You can do something to help,” she said she tells students.

Among the many topics covered in the class are résumés, job applications and interviews, banking (including checking account transactions and keeping it balanced), budgeting, credit and loan functions, planning for living and leisure expenses, insurance, taxes, financial planning and financial aspects of a business enterprise. 

The economics portion of the class is online, but Harkness reviews key points and includes assignments such as questions based on readings, she said.

Students also are learning workplace readiness skills and aspects of industry in the class. 

“I wish we had a class like this when I was in school,” Harkness sad.

A nationwide survey found only 13 states require high school students to take a course covering both economics and personal finance, according to a recent news release from the Council for Economic Education (CEE). Among those 13 states, Virginia is one of the only ones requiring a full year of instruction. 

“With the full-year course, students will understand their role and opportunities in the global marketplace,” Patricia I. Wright, Virginia’s superintendent of public instruction, stated in the release. “They will acquire the foundational knowledge needed to make smart decisions as adults about spending, saving, investing, risk-taking and even starting a business,” she added.

Previous research has demonstrated that students from states with required financial education courses are more likely to save, less likely to max out their credit cards or make late credit card payments, more likely to pay off credit cards each month and less likely to be compulsive buyers, according to the CEE. 

“In most cases, HCPS students take this course in 10th grade,” Superintendent Jared Cotton said. “I’ve been impressed with the relevant content, and the real-world applications that are a part of this course. ... I’ve been pleased with the high-level discussions and questions the students ask. Most importantly, students are learning life-long skills that will help them make good financial decisions long after high school.”

Magna Vista Principal Gracie Agnew said there’s a nationwide push for students to graduate with knowledge about fiscal responsibility. 

“So many students get in difficulty with credit card debt” or lack knowledge “of how much you need to survive,” she added.

The only problem Agnew said she sees is that it takes personnel to teach the course. “It comes at a time when we don’t have funding for additional staff,” she said. 


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