(BPT) - For most teens, high school is an exciting time for those sweet, first tastes of independence: first dates, first cars, first paychecks.
As low-stakes as some of these milestones may seem, there’s one area that deserves some extra attention in every family: personal finance. Today’s teens are spending $260 billion a year in the U.S., yet only 17 states require completion of at least one financial literacy course for high school graduation. Consider the fact that 3.3 million high school students are expected to graduate in 2017, and what we have is too many young adults heading out into the real world lacking even a basic understanding of money management.
“That means today’s young people are spending and borrowing more than ever without understanding the consequences,” says Wendy Kha, a San Francisco teen who was selected by Boys & Girls Clubs of America to serve as national ambassador for its teen financial literacy program called Money Matters: Make it Count, created in collaboration with Charles Schwab Foundation.
Taking part in this program had a profound impact on Kha, along with over 725,000 other Club teens who have completed Money Matters. As an advocate for teaching financial responsibility, she offers a few tips for parents and teens.
Save early, save often
As soon as you start earning money or receiving an allowance, you should open a savings account. Parents and teens can decide together how much of the earnings should be set aside for savings.
“Whenever you earn or receive money, put at least 10 percent of it into a savings account,” Kha says. “I personally set aside 25 percent of my income from my part-time job to help me save up for big-ticket purchases, such as concert tickets and cool electronics, as well as college tuition.”
Needs vs wants
When something fun comes up at the last minute it’s hard to say no, and even harder to face the idea of missing out. The best thing teens can do is prepare for situations that lead to impulse purchases. Start by making a list of needs and wants. Each month, plan for the things you need, and figure out how much is left over for the fun stuff. If you know ahead of time that your car insurance is coming due, you will be less likely to spend all your money on concert tickets.
Keep track of spending
Now that you’re aware of how much you need for necessities and what’s left over for the fun stuff, it’s time to start keeping track of everything you spend. It doesn’t matter if you use cash or a debit card, and it doesn't matter if you keep track with an app or a small notebook. Just be sure to log every single purchase. Even small things, including the taco from the food truck or trail mix from the vending machine, should be entered into the log. Being mindful of every dollar you spend will help you understand your spending habits — and help you find ways to reduce your spending and save even more.
“You can avoid impulsive, emotional or irrational decisions if you recognize them in advance,” Kha says.
Build good credit
Money decisions you make even now as a teenager will make a difference later. Good credit is essential to getting a good rate on a car loan or leasing an apartment later on. That credit score is an indication to future lenders that you are responsible and will pay on time. To build good credit, always pay your bills on time and carefully manage your checking account. If you choose to get a credit card, never charge more than you can afford to repay in full each month.
Get a reality check
Before graduating high school and going out on your own, it's important to sit down and get a solid idea of what it takes to make ends meet while living the lifestyle you want. Look for a financial education program geared for teens. A good one will cover budgeting, goal setting and planning for the future.
For example, Kha learned a lot from one component of Money Matters called the Reality Store, a hands-on experience that helps teens envision the realities of adult life — understanding careers and salaries, managing income and expenses as well as planning savings and investments. These lessons are also reinforced in a new interactive feature of the program — a digital game called $KY. Players navigate financial decisions and are rewarded for managing cash and credit wisely, adding a fun new way to learn these important life skills.
“It’s a lot to digest,” Kha says. “But I know when I head off to college, my eyes will be wide open, and that will help me make better money decisions.”