My Take: Personal finance should be a mandatory course in high school

If you ask me what I remember from taking the careers course in Grade 10, I would only be able to recall that a quiz concluded I’d make a fine jeweller. Needless to say, I never came close to pursuing that glittery occupation and the rest of what I learned during that semester is a blur.

Years later, my university cancelled a personal finance course I wanted to take due to low enrolment. I was pretty oblivious about basic financial topics until I had to learn about managing my money after moving out on my own. Like me, many Canadians don’t really learn about personal finance until they have to manage their own money.

With Financial Literacy Month underway in Canada, I’ve been thinking about my earliest brushes with finance. It’s clear there’s a significant gap in the area. A recent survey by Tangerine Bank, for example, found only 50 per cent of Canadians feel knowledgeable about personal finance. And a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s International Network on Financial Education found most Canadians lack confidence about their level of financial knowledge, with only 30 per cent of those polled rating it as high.

Read: A look at Canada’s financial literacy strategy

So it’s no surprise that many Canadians want to learn more about finance. Two months ago, the Toronto Youth Cabinet, a youth advisory body, started a petition that calls on the Ontario government to incorporate financial literacy into the Grade 10 careers curriculum so that students can learn about managing money early in life.

The interest continues into adulthood and the workplace, as demonstrated by a recent survey by Xerox HR Services that showed 91 per cent of employers offer financial literacy and skills programs due to increasing demand from employees. It’s clear, then, that employers are also dealing with the results of low levels of financial knowledge.

The demand for more education on financial issues is due in part to people not knowing where to start and who to trust, says Frank Wiginton, chief executive officer and financial wellness expert at Employee Financial Well-Being in Toronto.

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In Grade 9, students learn about the importance of physical fitness through a mandatory gym course. And in Grade 10, schools challenge them to be active political citizens through a mandatory civics course. So why aren’t schools doing more to teach young people financial concepts and how they can be smart consumers? From purchasing an iPod to applying for a school loan, there’s a strong link between such decisions and financial well-being.

Yet there remains a gap in the education system. While all provinces try to embed financial concepts into the curriculum of elementary and high schools, British Columbia is still the only province to offer financial skill instruction as a mandatory subject for Grade 10 students.

Read: 88% of U.S. employees are stressed due to personal finances: survey

Although there’s merit in integrating financial concepts within the existing curriculum, that strategy relies on individual teachers to actively incorporate those theories with other subject matter. What if certain educators, who are perhaps strong in areas such as English or history, feel uncomfortable teaching finance, a subject that’s foreign to them and they they haven’t studied as intensively?

It’s important for schools to determine whether these teachers have the necessary skills and knowledge to deliver an integrated curriculum, says Wiginton. If not, it may be wise for school boards to offer training programs or continuing education.

And while such an approach is a great first step, it’s not enough. In my opinion, a well-designed high school course on managing money would be invaluable in preparing students for life after school. In order to be successful, the course should teach theoretical concepts that are relevant to a teenager’s life (such as how a student loan or credit card works) and assign practical exercises for students to engage in (such as filing a tax return or drafting a budget).

Read: Employee Financial Well-Being to launch online pilot program

While students may not remember every detail of what they learn in that course, certain lessons will inevitably come back to them when they encounter future situations that propel them to use the information.

Connecting numbers and financial concepts with real life is important, says Wiginton, who sees a link between financial illiteracy and struggles with numeracy.

In Ontario, concerns about numeracy skills are growing as schools grapple with declining math results in grades 3 and 6. In light of the results, the government has announced it’s providing more educational resources to help Ontario students improve their math scores. And the province seems to be listening to the demand for financial literacy supports. According to a Toronto Star article, Education Minister Mitzie Hunter says the province will explore different ways of incorporating financial literacy into high schools.

So perhaps it will only be a matter of time before a designated course becomes a reality for the province and, hopefully, the rest of Canada as well.

Jann Lee is an associate editor at Benefits Canada.

Read: Financial wellness: The missing link in your employees’ financial plan