Saving With Sammy Rabbit

Sam Renick teaches kids to get in the habit of saving through his books, CDs and personal brand of fun.

Talk about a hard sell. Trying to persuade a group of 7-year-old children that saving money is fun ranks right up there with trying to make them believe that peas are a dessert food.

Anyone who's ever had that problem should invite Sam Renick for dinner. Renick can whip a gym full of elementary-school kids into a frenzy of enthusiasm for saving money minutes after bounding into the room. His MO? Renick does an interactive reading of his book It's a Habit, Sammy Rabbit! in which Sammy learns to save up a stash of carrots, then saves the day for his family when a storm washes away their storage shed. By the end of Renick's high-energy shtick, which also sneaks in a lesson about reading, the kids (and the adults with them) have learned that "saving is a great habit" and are happily singing along with Sammy -- one of Renick's assistants in full bunny gear -- "Get in the habit, like Sammy Rabbit."

Renick spent nine years in financial services before starting the "It's a Habit!" Co. ( three years ago. In addition to two Sammy books, Renick has produced a CD -- an upbeat mix of rock, rap and reggae with tunes such as "Anyone Can Be Rich" and "Debt Stinks" -- plus guides for grown-ups on how to use his materials. This year he's spending nearly five months on the road taking his message to schools. "After hearing adults tell me repeatedly that they regretted not learning to save and invest as children, I felt this was my life's purpose," says Renick, who hopes his own business will turn a profit this year.

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Life lessons. Sammy Rabbit is just one approach to classroom financial education. A more formal program is Junior Achievement's Finance Park, offered at seven locations across the U.S. and in a mobile classroom sponsored by JA and credit-card company Capital One. Middle-school students are presented with real-life scenarios that include a family and a job with a monthly salary, and they're asked to budget their expenses. When I dropped in on Finance Park, the kids were wrestling with how big a mortgage they could afford and how they could cram a spouse and two kids into the sports car they wanted (they couldn't). "How am I supposed to save money?" wailed one student. Before the exercise, said their teacher, Janell Finley, the kids thought their parents "just didn't want to buy them things. Now they know better."

Some states require classes in personal-finance education. But there's no overall standard and programs are often scattershot, based on the interest of a school, a teacher or a parent group. You can get information and curriculum materials for all grade levels from groups such as the National Endowment for Financial Education (, the National Council on Economic Education and the National Academy Foundation. The JumpStart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy maintains a clearinghouse of materials.

Parents rule. But no matter how good the program, school will always play second fiddle to parents. Surveys consistently show that kids learn most of what they know about money from Mom and Dad. After all, only parents can give kids hands-on lessons in managing real cash.

One of those who're teaching lessons in personal finance is my 24-year-old son, now a high school math teacher. He called Mom to get some pointers about how to teach his kids to spend smart and stay out of debt. "How did the lesson go?" I asked a few days later. "Fine," he said, "but they're only interested in buying stuff on sale if they're using their own money." Now there's a lesson for parents.

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.