In Beyond Personal Finance, Charla McKinley teaches teens about finances for life. She begins with planning for college and career, and continues through marriage, purchasing a home, dealing with a job loss, paying income tax, and other critical aspects of life that affect finances.
The course has both online and physical components. For each of the 20 lessons in the course, there is an online lecture along with additional links to supplemental videos and downloadable PDF files. The physical component is one large, full-color, spiral-bound student workbook.
McKinley begins with a lesson about college and career decisions to help students realize the long-range consequences of those decisions. Students then make college and career decisions for the purposes of the course that influence their financial future as it plays out through the rest of the course. McKinley takes the approach that, in most cases, young adults will be better off if they plan to get a college degree. She provides realistic financial comparisons for various options, allowing for the possibility that some students might succeed without college. Nevertheless, she tries to convince them that a college degree is likely to set them up for better financial security.
In Beyond Personal Finance, students will be working out their own financial plans for their future selves through a game-like structure. Students make their own realistic choices that both influence their progress in the game and help them learn how to make the best choices in real life. The game introduces elements of chance that disrupt financial plans through “plot twists” selected by the spin of an electronic wheel.
While the course might influence choices students are making in real life, choices made for the future apply only within the course. This is a learning opportunity for students to test out real-life decisions and experience the consequences of those decisions without real-life consequences.
Students are expected to be honest and realistic, basing their answers on their own situations and guessing as best they can about the future. They should consult with parents regarding some of their choices. For instance, parental input regarding financial planning for college is absolutely essential.
While the decisions about college and career are foundational, that’s only the beginning of a young person’s journey into adulthood. Each of the lessons is designed to represent a year further down the road in life. In most lessons, students have to make a choice that will impact their budget, then recalculate their budget based upon that choice. Students will answer questions, take notes, and complete budget charts at each “stage of life” using the electronic or PDF forms found in the student portal. They will also complete worksheets with computations such as for purchasing either a new or used car, calculating the effects of simple and compound interest, and calculating a net paycheck after deductions have been taken.
Some lessons have to do with personal choices and circumstances. For example, the sixth lesson is about choosing a spouse and addresses various scenarios for financial and lifestyle impacts based upon that choice. The eighteenth lesson, which is about the dangers of divorce, has students work through the cost of a divorce in financial terms. Even though students compute the cost of divorce, there is no actual divorce in their life plan within the course, and those calculations don’t affect the budget going forward.
A parent or teacher needs to work closely with teens as they work through this course. Parents and teachers have their own teacher portal with short videos explaining what to expect in each lesson and providing keys and other resources helpful for facilitating the course.
The course is complex, but if students follow instructions they should be able to figure out what to do. A checklist at the end of each lesson ensures that students complete all of the necessary steps. McKinley continually reminds students to check with their teacher or parent to verify the accuracy of their decisions and calculations.
If students make a bad choice within the course that puts them financially in the red, they get to go back and change that choice. The parent or teacher can allow students to sometimes make an entry that reflects exceptional circumstances for a student that mirror real life, such as a situation where parents plan to give the student a car. That student doesn’t need to budget for the cost of the car (aside from operating expenses) or the cost for alternate transportation as will other students.
Lessons often incorporate supplemental videos that are accessed through links in the parent/teacher portal. For example, in the first lesson, McKinley has students watch a sobering video about the student debt crisis. The second lesson links to a Saturday Night Live skit, “Don’t Buy Stuff,” that illustrates how easily we make decisions to buy things even when we can’t afford them.
Video lectures for each lesson run less than 30 minutes, although McKinley often has students stop the video to complete an activity, then come back and continue the lesson. The student workbook presents essentially the same material as is on the videos but with less explanation and fewer examples. Students do not need to read through the entire lesson in the student workbook. Following along in the workbook while watching the video makes the most sense.
The course involves some math. The mathematical computations in Lessons 7, 8, 9, 16, and 17 are explained in the videos. Students can pause the video if they need to, or they might find it easier to work through those parts of a lesson in the student workbook.
The three multiple-choice tests included with the course are self-grading if done electronically. There is also the option of downloading and printing the PDF version from the portal if necessary. The second and third tests contain math calculations similar to the work done in the lessons.
A parent or teacher guides students through the course but does not actually teach them. The videos for the teacher help the parent or teacher understand the rationale for an activity or the upcoming lesson, and they seem most helpful when they suggest topics for further discussion. Answer keys to the material presented in the course are included in the teacher portal.
Beyond Personal Finance is a clever approach to teaching about finances. It goes further into the details of personal financial planning and decision making than do most other high school courses, and it presents scenarios that are based on common life experiences and decisions. Teens are likely to find this very interesting. The decision choices and plot twists used in the course make it more interesting while also reflecting the variability and unpredictability of real life.