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opinion

Melissa Leong is the author of the personal finance guide Happy Go Money

When I was little, I learned about money through a shoebox.

My father sealed a small, white box with tape, cut a slit into one side and scrawled my name on it in capital letters. It was our version of a piggy bank.

Money went in and it never came out. I have no idea how much I even accumulated because I never counted it. I just kept stuffing birthday and holiday gift money into it. And although at any time, I could’ve stuck my fingers in and fished out a $20 note, I never did because I was obsessed with cash staying inside the box.

I suspect that, like me, many Canadians grew up with little to no formal financial education and figured it out, or fumbled, on their own, with a first job, a first credit card, etc. So, with Ontario introducing financial literacy at all levels of elementary school in its new math curriculum, it seems we should rejoice. After all, won’t financial education equip young people with the knowledge, skills and confidence to take charge of their money and their lives?

Well, there’s no question that more financial literacy in schools is long overdue and sorely needed. Financial literacy among adults in this country is abysmal. In 2014, the federal government quizzed our financial capability on subjects such as debt and banking fees and only 2.7 per cent of participants answered all 14 questions correctly.

And in these times, money savvy is paramount. The pandemic has triggered what international agencies are saying could become the worst global recession in nearly a century. Even before this health crisis, we were indebted citizens. We owe $1.77 for every dollar of household disposable income earned. Our young people are graduating laden with debt, sewing multiple gigs together to create a living wage and relying on parents for down payments to fulfill homeownership dreams.

They’re faced with more financial products, more spending and investment choices, more risks, more fraud.

But while financial knowledge will help, it won’t be enough to empower people. It won’t prevent people from making bad money decisions.

You may, for example, be able to compute the results of minimum payments on your credit card balance, but you can still end up on debt row, borrowing beyond your means. Just like you can understand the importance of physical activity and you can study the mechanics of a burpee, but it doesn’t mean you’ll exercise.

Yes, we need financial literacy. But we also need systemic changes to nudge people into making better choices. We need policies and systems that take into account our behaviour when it comes to money, such as simpler processes to help us enroll in workplace retirement plans. Secondly, we need to examine our own personal belief systems that dictate our behaviour with money.

I know a lot more about personal finance now – I once painfully learned, then quickly, and thankfully, forgot how to calculate bond yields – but what I learned about money growing up is still my default for managing finances.

I was keenly aware of the sacrifices my family made to immigrate to Canada. My father worked weekdays for the government and weekends at the family restaurant. My mother earned extra money as a seamstress, sewing into the early hours of the night. My shoebox represented a vault in which to hide hard-earned money; you toiled for your dollars and because it was a finite, precious resource, you hoarded it.

That attitude about money still defines my habits. I can be frugal to a fault, sacrificing pleasures, shrinking from risk and hesitating to invest in my business.

I only understood this in recent years because I talk and think a lot about money. I wished I had had more conversations about finances with my family. Today, I’m making sure that I talk about it with my sons and that when I discuss money in front of them, the script is thoughtful, rather than anxiety-ridden. I also try to model good money behaviour and involve them in my decision-making processes, from my choices at the grocery store to the charities we choose to support. I intend to give them their own shoeboxes so they can practice and make mistakes.

The introduction of money concepts in Ontario schools should serve as a prompt. It should encourage us to look at our own relationships with money as it’s often the unconscious lessons, what children learn by example and internalize, that determine whether they’ll overspend or over-borrow, whether they’ll save for a “rainy day” or provide for their own retirement.

If we want the next generation to be financially empowered, we have to hold ourselves accountable. We have to think, if you will, outside the box, and re-evaluate the classroom at home.

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