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 job loss, paying income tax, and other critical aspects of life that affect finances.
The course has both online and physical components. There are 20 lessons in the course. There is an online lecture for each lesson along with additional links to supplemental videos and downloadable PDF files. The physical components are two large, spiral-bound books: a student workbook and a teacher 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 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 the 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 self 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 roll of a die.
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 situation, 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. In their workbooks, students will answer questions, take notes, and complete budget charts at each “stage of life.” 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 life choices and circumstances. For example, the sixth lesson about choosing a spouse addresses various scenarios for financial and lifestyle impacts based upon that choice. The eighteenth lesson on 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, and those calculations don’t affect the budget going forward.
A parent or teacher needs to work closely with teens as they go through this course. The course is complicated, but if students follow instructions they should be able to figure out what to do. If students have made a bad choice that puts them financially in the red, they need to go back and change the choice they just made. The parent or teacher can allow students to sometimes make an entry that reflects exceptional circumstances for a student, 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 (other than operating expenses) or alternate transportation as will other students. McKinley continually reminds students to check with their teacher or parent to verify the accuracy of their decisions and calculations.
In the video lectures, she works through her own personal examples to show students what to do. A checklist at the end of each lesson insures that students complete all of the necessary steps.
Lessons often incorporate supplemental videos that are accessed through links on the course website. 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 about 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, but they do need to complete the worksheets and the pages with questions. Following along in the workbook while watching the video makes the most sense.
Sometimes, McKinley rushes quickly through the mathematical calculations that she is explaining. If students can’t keep up, they can pause the video, or they might find it easier to work through the lesson in the student workbook.
Three tests that are included with the course need to be printed from downloadable files. The tests are very challenging. While the first test is only three pages long, the other two are eight and ten pages each. The last two tests require students to complete math calculations to fill in charts, and all three tests require some paragraph-long answers.
The parent or teacher guides students through the course but does not actually teach them. The teacher workbook has slightly reduced student pages, and when there are notes to the teacher, those appear beneath the images of the student pages. Teaching notes sometimes 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 tests are in the teacher workbook.
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 fun while reflecting the variability and unpredictability of real life.