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To teach financial literacy, get 'em while they're young

At a recent showing of the movie Inside Job, the must-see documentary about the global economic collapse, there were the kind of gasps from the audience you usually hear at horror movies.

We weren't seeing blood stained corpses though. We were watching pinstriped government officials, bankers, economic gurus and other titans, some still working for the Obama administration, exposed for having sold out ordinary Americans to feather their own nests.

Narrated by Matt Damon, the movie, basically a collection of interviews with major players and observers (even senior economists from Harvard and Columbia universities "disgrace themselves," as one critic put it) is a chronology of what happened when, in a deregulated paradise, the financial services sector was allowed to bet against its own clients.

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As everyone now knows, this created an economic house of falling cards that sparked the 2008 global meltdown. We're still digging out today.

But apart from the continuing rage, Inside Job should also foster a drive to do for the next generation what we didn't do for ourselves – help them take responsibility for their own financial knowledge, both on a personal and a public level.

What struck me throughout the movie was how little I actually did know about how the banking system works, let alone what on earth "derivatives" or "credit default swaps" are. If ordinary people – many of whose savings disappeared in what some called an economic tsunami – had had more basic financial knowledge, would things have turned out differently?

We'll never know, but "financial literacy" is certainly all the rage now. (We're ignorant as hell but we're not going to take it any more.)

A recent Harris/Decima poll conducted on behalf of the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants shows that 85 per cent of Canadians think children should be taught basic money management skills in school.

"And why do the other 15 per cent believe they shouldn't be taught?" jokes Laurie Campbell, executive director of Credit Canada, who spends her working days helping people dig out from their mountains of debt. That poll also showed that adults want more knowledge about basic skills such as minimizing taxes, teaching their children about money management, learning how to avoid fraud and managing debt.

But as Ms. Campbell pointed out in a telephone interview, it's so much more effective to teach young kids new skills than it is to try to get adults to change their bad old financial ways (despite Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney lecturing us regularly about credit card debt). Ms. Campbell calls this "behavioural economics."

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Get 'em while they're young. Financial literacy is taught piecemeal in some school boards across the country, but next fall, for instance, the Ontario Ministry of Education will integrate more direct teaching into the curriculum, through Grades 4 to 12. Subjects will include such basic concepts as income, debt and, in the later grades, according to a spokesman, "future consequences of financial decisions."

It won't be a dedicated course, unfortunately, but it's a start.

I know twentysomethings who are financially independent, but genuinely perplexed about how much rent they can really afford on their income, when they should start a savings plan (yesterday!), and which bank credit card come-ons make sense and which ones they should run screaming from.

I watch younger kids so computer savvy they can go online and buy what they want if mom or dad gives them their already overloaded plastic to do so.

And, of course, we all live in an advertising-heavy world in which we can be made to feel that we're nothing without the latest expensive tech toy. (My cellphone is so not "smart," it should come in a brown paper wrapper.) You can bet many kids today are growing up in homes racked by financial worries. Another finding from that poll: Seventy-eight per cent of Canadian parents have tried to teach their children money skills, but two-thirds believe they have not been very successful. Perhaps that is because they are ashamed of their own financial problems, and beset by very real worries about the future. "Kids, don't do what we did" has never been a very effective teaching tool.

Ms. Campbell says that what she has learned about being in the credit counselling business for so many years is that "people who have a better handle on their finances have better relationships, better health and better lives all round."

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You can't argue with that, or indeed with the goal of financial literacy. Maybe in the very near future those money-savvy kids will come home from school and gently lecture mom and dad about not carrying a balance on their credit cards.

And that may well have more impact than anything Mr. Carney, fretting over household debt, says from on high.

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