We’ve all heard the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses.” It refers to the notion of keeping up with someone else’s standard of living. Maybe it’s the neighbor down the street who always has a brand new car or the coworker who makes about the same amount of money you do but lives in a house twice as big, or maybe it’s the friend at the gym who has a closet full of designer clothes.
The problem with “keeping up with the Joneses” is that we don’t always have a realistic picture of their actual financial situation. While the lives of those we compare ourselves with may look great from the outside, if you dig a little deeper, sometimes the picture isn’t quite so rosy. A 2015 study by Bankrate showed that 24% of those surveyed indicated their credit card debt exceeded the money in their emergency fund or savings. Another 13% had no debt, which is good, but they also had no savings. Not so good.
Many Americans, including me, have grown up in a world where bigger equals better, where more equals status, and where the temptation to purchase is typically only one click away. And we like our stuff!
All of which is a problem.
Which is why it’s so important to teach good financial habits at an early age. Not every family talks about money, and some parents struggle to be positive role models when it comes to financial discipline.
That’s why organizations such as JumpStart work so hard to advocate for national financial literacy across grades K through 12, and why some states, Florida being one, have passed legislation and adopted new standards on the topic.
If all kids graduated school knowing economic basics—spend less than you earn, understand the difference between wants and needs, be able to effectively delay gratification, calculate a budget, and actually save money—we’d have a generation of kids who will never lie awake at night wondering if they can afford to retire. That happens today to far too many Americans. And it happens to those across all salary levels, according to an article (subscription required) in The Wall Street Journal.
Vanguard’s My Classroom Economy® program helps kids learn financial basics by giving educators compelling tools to teach fundamental financial literacy concepts. Why? Because we want future investors to have the best chance of investment success. That means starting out right with a solid foundation. And it means developing smart financial habits, one child at a time.
That won’t be easy. But it is doable.
More than half a million kids around the United States are already using the program. And in a typical classroom, they’re learning how to save, avoid buyer’s remorse, and prevent overspending. They’re celebrating the move from renting to owning, and they’re investing their virtual classroom dollars for the long term and realizing that, over the course of decades, those dollars can really add up.
Can one program make a difference? We believe it can. And thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Financial Empowerment Innovation Fund, The Center for Financial Security at the University of Wisconsin–Madison has conducted a study to measure its effectiveness. Initial results were released at the end of April.
What did they show?
Early findings indicated that compared with a control group, kids who participated in the program:
- Increased their financial knowledge
- Did a better job of tracking their spending
- Were more likely to go home and talk to their parents about financial topics
And all of this was achieved without actually “teaching” financial literacy. Kids learned through their own direct experiences in a simulated economy—through their own successes and failures as well as those around them.
The temptation to buy too much will always exist. But your kids and my kids will be in a much better place financially if they learn how to live within their means. If they forget about the Joneses, the super-sized mortgage, and the latest gadgets. If they aim instead to be the most financially secure family on the block. It may not make them the envy of the neighborhood, but maybe it should.