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Mind Over Money

Program aims to give students grip on finances

By Joanne Zuhl, Post-Crescent staff writer

Amanda Barlowski is pretty popular these days. Nike wants to sell her $100 running shoes with coordinating shorts and jacket. Motorola and Nokia are dying to sign her up for cell phones, beepers and other chirping black boxes, and Discover, Visa and Mastercard are tripping over themselves to give her thousands of dollars in credit, all for a lifetime of compounding interest.

What's Amanda Barlowski got that they want? Her income and an 18-year-old's naivete.

But Barlowski, a single mother who lives with her boyfriend, isn't playing their game. As she enters her senior year at Appleton North High School, she's enrolled in a class called Personal Financial Management. It's a pilot program for Appleton North created with cooperation from Aid Association for Lutherans, that goes beyond basic financial knowledge to explore investment opportunities, risk management and consumer rights.

Barlowski's goal is to learn how to manage her money efficiently and not become trapped in a bind.

"I want to have money in case an emergency comes up, or for planning vacations every year with my child, and making sure she's got a happy childhood and that she's got everything she needs," Barlowski said.

Barlowski may be the exception to the rule. She's a consummate saver, but it's because she's had to be, with many financial responsibilities arriving earlier than most teen-agers in school.

"I think we should have to start worrying about (money) early in life because some people put it off. They really don't worry about what's going to happen in the future," Barlowski said.

Rita Riordan, a family and consumer education teacher at North, will be teaching the new class which she says goes far behind the basics. The course will incorporate classroom and onsite services of AAL to teach students employment benefits, insurance needs and investment options.

"I'm so excited to teach this class," Riordan said. "I felt that the kids really needed more of an overview. They needed to know how to use the investments instead of what investments are. So working with AAL, I think we really have a complete program."

Riordan said the course will cover seven areas of study: career decisions, money management, financial security, credit management, resource management, risk management and consumer rights and responsibilities.

They will learn online investment tactics, saving options and even retirement planning. It's valuable information for a teen-age population that has more money than any previous generation and faces more and more marketers determined to take it away.

"They're all working, but the money's going nowhere," said Riordan. "It's in their pockets and out of their pockets."

Riordan knows retirement is far from the hot topic among teen-agers these days, but it's important students understand retirement needs before they even get their first paycheck.

"In a pre-test at the start of the class, students showed limited knowledge of the basics in auto insurance, liquid assets, securities on deposits or even how to calculate over-time. On the topic of consumer protection issues, "no one knew who Ralph Nader was," Riordan said.

A nationwide survey, sponsored by the JumpStart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy showed a decline in financial knowledge among 12th graders. On average, the students answered only 51.9 percent of the questions on the 2000 test correctly. In 1997, the average was 57.3 percent.

Melissa Niemuth, 17, is a senior taking Riordan's class. She will be moving out on her own in June, and said she wants to make sure she keeps her budget in check - something she didn't always do in the past.

"I blew money pretty rapidly," Niemuth said. "I'm getting a better feel for it now and I think as the class goes on I'll learn more and see how to balance everything better. Over last summer ... if I had money in my pocket it was gone within the day."

Niemuth has resisted getting a credit card, although she frequently receives offers in the mail. She's learned enough not to get started in the credit habit too soon. "I thought that you just paid back what you owed with it," Niemuth said. "I didn't read about the interest rate. So now I just cut them up and throw them away."

With her sights set on a career in nursing, Niemuth said her goal is to never have to live paycheck to paycheck. "It makes me nervous to think that when you're on your own you can easily fall behind," Niemuth said.

*The above article was reproduced with permission from the Post-Crescent Wisconsin newspaper, September 14, 2000.

Amanda Barlowski of Appleton cleans one of the rooms at the Hampton Inn in Appleton Sunday. Barlowski, a senior at Appleton North High School, works for the hotel part time on the weekends. She's taking a financial management course offered for this fall at the high school as part of a pilot program. Photo credit: Sean Connelley