- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Money Bus rolled onto Capitol Hill yesterday to show Congress the importance of financial literacy in U.S. elementary schools.

The 40-foot-long converted motor bus, created by the Networks Financial Institute (NFI) at Indiana State University (ISU), appeals to youthful eyes with vibrant colors and balloons painted on its sides. It is a financial classroom on wheels.

The goal of the activity-filled bus is to help Indiana pupils, from third to fifth grade, understand the concepts of saving, spending, budgeting and setting goals through interactive games.

“We want to show that it’s never too early to expose kids to these concepts,” said David Godsted, NFI’s director of financial literacy. “There are misconceptions that kids have to be teenagers and earning money for real before they actually need to understand this stuff.”

Pupils set up virtual bank accounts before boarding the bus. After they have learned basic finance skills in the classroom, the children are given fake debit cards. Inside the bus, arcade-style games and a fake automated teller machine help children learn about money and how it relates to their financial interests and goals.

The Money Bus started the school year by visiting public elementary schools across Indiana, helping more than 4,000 children learn the basic concepts of financial literacy.

The second tour is only beginning. The Money Bus has another 20 schools signed up across Indiana.

The project was funded by a grant from ISU and Lilly Endowment Inc., an Indianapolis philanthropic foundation.

The next phase of the project is to provide schools with a finance curriculum, without having to transport the bus.

The Money Bus is one way the NFI tries to help avoid financial problems during the teen and adult years.

The NFI and other organizations are waving red flags over spending trends among youths.

American teens spent $79.7 billion last year and are expected to spend $91.1 billion in 2011— a 3.5 percent annual growth rate, according to Packaged Facts, a market research publishing company.

High school students failed a finance test administered last year by the JumpStart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy, a D.C. nonprofit organization. The average score was 52.4 percent, a solid F, but a slight improvement from previous years.

Laura Levine, JumpStart Coalition executive director, said teaching financial literacy at a younger age is critical.

“By the time kids are teenagers they have received credit card offers, they are working and making financial decisions, and in some cases that may be too late to help them make financial decisions,” Mrs. Levine said.

“A lot of times, we lose kids at the high school level. You have to get them while they’re young enough to set their course in the right direction. While teenagers are better able to comprehend personal finance, you have to plant that seed at much earlier age … to create good habits.”

NFI is spreading the word to teachers who are banking on the success of the finance literacy curriculum.

Most schools don’t have the detailed lessons that the Money Bus provides.

“Let’s get there early to teach them to be thoughtful of what it means to have a budget and what it means to spend wisely, so that by the time they’re teenagers they’ve already got it. We think it might be too late at that point if they haven’t had training before,” said Mr. Godsted.

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