Work & Money

Money talks: Should financial literacy be taught in school?

As young people enter an unsteady workforce, one millennial thinks a key to their success might be financial literacy. And he wants this topic added to a high schooler's curriculum.
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How did you learn about money? When I asked this question of millennial and gen x peers, I got a variety of responses:

"My mother who worked at a bank, and looking things up online."

"Quite a bit in Grade 12 and OAC Economics. Some from hanging around relatives in the financial industry. A little bit from reading."

"Parents both worked for banks, then I worked as a bank teller in undergrad."

"My Dad, he is self-taught, didn't want the man (the banks, the government) to get an extra penny more."

"Mr. Moore [in] economics, but it was really on budgeting and spreadsheets. To note: I believe he went off curriculum because we barely used our text books."

This is just a sample of responses, but what most of them had in common? They didn't mention a mandatory course in school. One, Vivian Whitnall, did learn financial skills, but in the Brownies, Girl Guides and Pathfinders programs. There was no dedicated junior high or high school course about how to create a budget, the difference between a savings and a chequing account or how to use a credit card.

Prakash Amarasooriya plans on changing that. He started a petition called, 'Add financial literacy into the Grade 10 Career Studies course.' This petition is aimed at the Ontario Ministry of Education, Premier Wynne and Mitzie Hunter, the minister of education, and the MPP for Scarborough-Guildwood, with the goal of adding financial education into the mandatory Grade 10 Career Studies course.

Amarasooriya didn't just decide to launch a change to the Ontario educational system. The 23-year-old got a crash course in how to manage money thanks to the 2008 financial crisis. He worked five part-time jobs simultaneously to help his parents and his younger brother, and to pay for his post-secondary education.

"My parents lost their jobs at the same time as a result of the 2008 financial crisis," he says. "They were car factory workers, so they were the first to go." He was 15 at the time and soon found himself working to help support his family. He worked as a cashier, a tae kwon do instructor and admin assistant at the dojo, a member of an entertainment street team and he had a summer internship.

Not only did his grades suffer, but Amarasooriya had a lot of questions about money. He admitted that he didn't know the difference between a chequing and savings accounts, and his school didn't have the resources to give him the financial know-how he needed. "I had to teach myself," he says.

And it's something he noticed with his current job at a bank. Every day he sees young people walking into the bank and they tell him they don't know how to file taxes or what getting a mortgage actually means. "They aren't learning these life skills in school and they want to learn." These skills, says Amarasooriya, are vital because errors with money can cost someone to the point where they can't recover, enabling the cycle of poverty.

Right now, he's focussed on promoting the online petition: "One [step] is gathering the awareness of the initiative so students can learn those specific skills. We also want to do financial literacy videos with youth in school." They partnered with the Canadian Foundation for Economic Education at a media event on October 27, 2016 on Bay Street, and in early November, they will have a deputation at the TDSB. The next step is to take the petition to Queen's Hall in early 2017.

Personally, I started learning about money when I had to pay my student loans while paying rent and trying to save a little something to buy a home and plan for retirement. With the household debt, including consumer credit, mortgage and non-mortgage borrowing, reaching $1.933 trillion at the end of the first quarter of 2016, and the debt-to-income ratio sitting at 1.65 per cent, a little knowledge can go a long way.

Asking this question of millennials and gen x'ers sparked an ongoing discussion. As one friend, the one who took OAC economics, said, "I can't remember why I took those at this point, but I'm glad I did."

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