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April 26, 2009 - (by Claudia Buck, The Sacramento Bee) - For the 20 or so high school seniors in Matthew Pesci's class at Laguna Creek High School, Wednesday's lecture was real life.  

The kind with dollars and cents attached: How to avoid overdraft fees. How to keep from bouncing checks. How to maintain a savings account. How to stay out of debt.  The college-bound seniors even practiced writing a check – of $1.

The money talk, by two Tri Counties Bank managers in Elk Grove, is one of thousands being delivered by bankers to K-12 students nationwide. It's part of an American Bankers Association effort to reach 1 million students in April, which is Financial Literacy Month.


"They're getting ready for college. They're going away from their parents for the first time. And they'll be managing their money alone for the first time," said Pesci, who teaches in Laguna Creek's college-prep program.

Although money management is not part of the required curriculum, Pesci has walked his 17- and 18-year-old students through such real-life basics as credit card comparisons and college financial aid.

"Especially with everything you hear about the economy right now," said Pesci, "I didn't want them to be one of the statistics."

The struggling economy – which has ripped into jobs, homes and incomes in many families this past year – is driving home the need for financial education.

"This is a unique moment in U.S. history to empower teens with the financial literacy skills that can serve them as adults – skills many of their parents lack and that many schools are unable to provide," wrote Gary Hickman, president of Junior Achievement, Southern California, in a recent Web posting.

The economy's impact is affecting teens on many fronts. According to a financial survey of U.S. students ages 12-17 by Junior Achievement and the Allstate Foundation in February, 12 percent had been asked to help with the family budget, 15 percent had curtailed extracurricular activities, and nearly half (49 percent) said their parents had discussed family finances.

Just this week, the Chicago public schools system announced that personal finance instruction will be taught in all of the city's 116 public high schools, starting this fall.

Here in California, statewide efforts are a little slower, partly due to the state's budget crisis.

Only Missouri, Tennessee and Utah require high schoolers to have a semester of personal finance, according to the Jumpstart Coalition, a national group that promotes youth financial literacy. Other states – California included – require a semester of economics, but not necessarily tied to money skills.

Last week, state Assemblyman Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, a longtime proponent of financial literacy in schools, got some traction with Assembly Bill 550, his bill to establish a "one-stop shop" for financial literacy curriculum – in several languages. It would concentrate financial literacy resources – for teachers, parents and consumers – under the state controller's office.

It passed the Assembly's Banking and Finance Committee on Monday and will be taken up by the full Assembly in May.

Lieu, who's seen his previous financial literacy bills spiked, is confident this version – which relies on nonprofits and businesses for funding – will get signed.

"The scale of the financial and mortgage crisis is so large … and there's realization it would have been mitigated if more citizens were financially literate," he said.

He and others would like to see the state require schools to offer instruction in personal money matters, like how to buy a car, get a mortgage, save and invest. "No one is taught this information in school," Lieu added.

"Because of our own economic issues, California is probably not going to see anything mandated in the near term," said Karen Anderson, president of the California Jumpstart Coalition.

But "awareness is growing," she added. "More parents want to be sure their kids don't get into the same kind of problems they are having with mortgages and credit cards."

In classrooms like Pesci's, the financial message is spreading.

Warning that "tons of companies will be soliciting you" for credit cards, car loans and other debt vehicles, Tri Counties' branch manager in Elk Grove advised the Laguna Creek students to be careful financially.

"You're lucky. You'll start off with a clean slate," said Jaena Nakagawa, noting that a credit score can take years to build but only 30 days to destroy.

To stay financially fit, she recommended: tallying daily expenses in a checkbook; saving up for big purchases, rather than running up a credit card balance; paying bills on time; and avoiding bank overdraft fees that'll cause "a $2 bottle of water to eventually cost you $40."

She also offered a cautionary tale from her bank: a young customer who was so awash in credit card debt he filed for bankruptcy – before he was old enough to drink.

Judging by the hands raised and questions asked, the money management messages are sinking in.

Jasmine Shelmire, 18, is working at a McDonald's outlet to help pay for attending Sacramento State next fall. Her takeaway from Wednesday's session?

"Don't be afraid to ask questions and be sure you fully understand the financial product you're getting," she said.

For many of these students, the economy's bigger lessons are playing out right before their eyes.

Talisha Lowe, who plans to study nursing at San Jose State University next fall, says foreclosures in her Elk Grove neighborhood have already forced some neighbors from their homes. And some friends have the grades – but not the money – to attend a four-year college.

But Lowe, who said her mom's "a great budgeter" and taught her to set aside 10 percent of her allowance for savings and 10 percent for tithing, feels prepared.

"I want to do things in life," said Lowe, whose dream is to work in neonatology, "without being held down by debt and credit card problems."

Have a personal finance question? Contact The Bee's Claudia Buck at (916) 321-1968.