Business

These students are facing real-world economic pressures. Mandatory financial literacy classes may help

November is financial literacy month, and as economic matters have become more complex some experts say financial literacy courses should be compulsory at high schools across Canada, even as some provinces have updated financial education curriculum.

Provinces should make financial literacy a mandatory high school class of its own, experts say

Students at Edmonton's Old Scona Academic high school packed a classroom for an optional lesson on financial literacy over their lunch break earlier in November. Some experts say it's time for mandatory financial literacy courses in high schools across the country. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

November is financial literacy month and there was no hiding from scary economic news, even for high school students.

"I can see the prices going up in terms of the food that I buy, the clothing that I buy and just regular student finances," said Anand Desaigoudar, a Grade 12 student at Old Scona Academic high school in Edmonton. 

Inflation, rising interest rates and fears of a recession are worrisome, even for kids who say they feel fortunate. Desaigoudar's classmate, Aurora Shi, is worried about university and beyond.

"There's not really a buffer between the stage where my parents pay for everything and where I pay for everything," said Shi. "So I think that learning about money is important so that I can prepare for my future."

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Roughly 30 students attended the optional financial literacy lesson over their lunch break last week. The class, which focuses on frauds and scams, is an example of how financial education is evolving.     

Whether it's delivered in math class or other courses, several provinces have recently revised what financial literacy classes are being offered to students from elementary through high school. 

Gary Rabbior is the president of the Canadian Foundation for Economic Education (CFEE) in Toronto, a non-profit that develops financial literacy programs and tools for schools.

He says financial matters — from online shopping, to investing, to managing debt — have become much more complex than they used to be and believes there should be a mandatory financial literacy course taught in high schools across Canada. 

"We owe it to our kids to be able to educate them, to empower them to make the best decisions they can make."

Financial education evolving

As economic pressures rise, Rabbior says the need for relevant financial education becomes more apparent.

"I think a lot of people's heads are swirling with the kind of change that's going on, the kinds of economic factors that are affecting their lives."

Frequently taught in math, financial literacy is also part of accounting, economics, entrepreneurship, social studies and physical education and wellness classes in some provinces.

British Columbia overhauled how it teaches financial education, primarily in math, from kindergarten to Grade 12 in 2018, with Yukon and Northwest Territories adopting their new curriculum. 

Ontario revised how financial literacy is taught in a career studies course in 2020 and math classes in 2021.

This summer, Alberta announced it would update its financial literacy curriculum to give students "much-needed financial knowledge and skills for personal and professional success."

The changes involves a $5 million investment with three independent partners to develop financial literacy programs in the next three years, with $1.5 million of that going to CFEE. 

Alberta teaches financial literacy in math, social studies and a mandatory "Career and Life Management" Grade 10 class.   

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Edmonton students Aurora Shi and Anand Desaigoudar share what they want to learn more about, while teacher Gerald Chung explains why financial literacy is important to kids today.

Newfoundland and Labrador updated their mandatory Career Education course for high school students this fall to include more lessons on personal financial literacy, after having launched the class just two years ago.

Rabbior says these life skills type classes are the perfect place for financial education.

"That's a very effective way to go, because you're really planning for life ahead, both the career you're going to have, the money you're going to make and how you're going to manage it effectively."  

While he applauds the provinces that are moving to update their financial literacy programs, he also says how these lessons are implemented across the country is "quite haphazard and choppy in terms of the different approaches that are being taken." 

Making financial literacy courses compulsory

Rabbior wants every province to create a compulsory high school course just on financial literacy to "wrap everything up for kids before they enter the world of financial decision making." 

"It's sort of our last chance to make sure that kids are equipped with the knowledge and skills they need," he said.

This fall Saskatchewan launched two high school courses on just financial literacy, but they are optional. While Rabbior says they're well designed, if the classes don't count as credit courses for university, students don't often take them. 

Edmonton teacher Gerald Chung believes in the idea of a mandatory financial literacy class, but he isn't sure it would work on a national level, given how every province handles education differently. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Edmonton teacher Gerald Chung says he's not sure a mandatory financial literacy class would work on a national level, given how every province handles education differently. 

The instructor of the student business club at Old Scona Academic says that while he likes the idea of a mandatory class, many educators argue "financial literacy can be taught in other courses" that are already required.   

But Vanessa Bowen, a financial advisor and CPA in Toronto says a mandatory class exclusively for financial literacy makes sense.

Bowen is the founder of Mint Worthy Co. Inc., a financial literacy platform for women. When she was just out of school and at a new job in accounting she got into trouble renting an expensive condo and spending too much money on dinners and clothing.   

She says she slid into a financial crisis she now believes could've been avoided if she'd been able to take a class on personal financial planning in high school. 

"I would have avoided a lot of those financial mistakes," Bowen said. "Oh, my gosh, it would have helped me make immensely better decisions."

She says such a class might even "change the trajectory of our economy, of how people spend, the amount of debt levels that we have." But she says parents also have a role to play in teaching financial responsibility.  

WATCH | Personal finance expert shares her own financial struggles: 

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Vanessa Bowen, a CPA and the founder of Mint Worthy Co. Inc., a personal finance coaching platform, shares her experience of struggling with money and how a financial literacy course would have helped when she started working.

Money and mental health 

Rabbior hopes students get the skills they need in school to be not just financially literate, but financially capable.

"We're trying to do much more than simply help kids pick the right credit card. We're trying to build the skills and knowledge that will help them stay in control of their life." 

The idea of control is important, he says, because studies show a very close correlation between financial health and mental health.

Shi, the Edmonton student, feels some financial stress coming her way. 

"It's a little overwhelming at the moment, because … the things that I would have to worry about in the future are like rent and like paying for my own food and paying for tuition."

She noted it's easy to just mindlessly buy things, but said, "as soon as you have to pay it back, you realize that your decisions actually impact your future."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

James Dunne

Producer, CBC News Business

James Dunne researches, produces and writes stories for the CBC News business unit. Based in Toronto, he's covered business for about 15 years starting with local news, before moving on to the show Venture and co-creating the series Fortune Hunters. His work for those programs won awards at the New York Festivals and Columbus International Film and Animation Festival. James has a master's degree in public policy and administration and has also worked on special projects as well as the World at Six on CBC Radio One. Contact James at james.dunne@cbc.ca

with files from Deana Sumanac Johnson

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