Financial Literacy Where It Counts

These programs teach low-income kids money-management skills.

Sometimes, as my editor says, you get a letter from a reader that makes your day, your week, your month. We at Kiplinger's received such a letter from John Mercer, a sixth-grade teacher in Fulton, N.Y., who wanted us to know that our March cover story on how to become a millionaire had made a big impact on his students, many of whom come from low-income households.

"Sadly, most of my students believe that the only way they will ever have wealth is to win the lottery," wrote Mercer. So he used several people profiled in the story -- chef Lorena Garcia; Lonnie Johnson, inventor of the Super Soaker water gun; Danny and Matt Kass, snowboarders-turned-entrepreneurs -- to show his students that "qualities like perseverance, determination and hard work" lead to success.

Mercer also managed to weave in lessons about vocabulary and reading comprehension. But the real payoff was that his students "felt inspired and motivated and have the hope that anything is possible."

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Mercer's experience is particularly timely because April is financial literacy month, and financial literacy is critical for low-income students. They need to learn money-management skills, but they also need to know they have a stake in the bigger economy.

I'd like to single out two other grass-roots programs that target inner-city youth. Washington Jesuit Academy, a middle school for disadvantaged boys in Washington, D.C., is one of eight schools participating in the Stocks in the Future program developed by Johns Hopkins University.

When I visited Bob Wassman's sixth-grade class, students were learning what determines stock prices. But they also earn points for class attendance and grade improvement that they can convert into real cash -- up to $80 per year -- to buy real stocks. "Learning to put a little aside will make a big difference to them when they get a job," says Wassman.

Also worthy of note is the Educated Consumer Project, which holds after-school sessions twice a week for students at McKinley Technology High School in Washington, D.C.

Brainchild of Jonathan Kivell, a master's-degree student at Georgetown University, the program aims to introduce low-income teens to banking and credit so that, as adults, they can steer clear of payday loans.

Classes are taught by students from Georgetown and Howard universities, who ended up learning a thing or two themselves.

Janet Bodnar

Janet Bodnar is editor-at-large of Kiplinger's Personal Finance, a position she assumed after retiring as editor of the magazine after eight years at the helm. She is a nationally recognized expert on the subjects of women and money, children's and family finances, and financial literacy. She is the author of two books, Money Smart Women and Raising Money Smart Kids. As editor-at-large, she writes two popular columns for Kiplinger, "Money Smart Women" and "Living in Retirement." Bodnar is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University and is a member of its Board of Trustees. She received her master's degree from Columbia University, where she was also a Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Business and Economics Journalism.