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Grasso Tech students learn about personal finance

Groton — Buy a car in cash. Graduate from college debt-free. Own a home. Have a stable emergency fund. Start a business or 10. Become a millionaire by age 25.

Those are some of the financial goals, written in chalk on a board in a classroom at Ella T. Grasso Technical School, that a group of 11th grade students have set for themselves as part of a course teaching them about personal finance.

On Wednesday afternoon, students in the class sat down to learn the first principle in the course: setting aside $500 in an emergency fund.

Students watched a short video by financial experts Dave Ramsey and Rachel Cruze on the five steps in Ramsey Education's "Foundations in Personal Finance" that the Grasso Tech students are learning. Their teacher, Steven Russell, then asked students where the best place is to keep their $500 emergency fund. After students answered that the best place is in a savings account, Russell then asked them what the danger would be of keeping the money under their bed. The students said that they could easily grab the money, lose it or their dog could eat it.

"You want to keep it in a place that's safe and easy enough to access but not so easy that you can just swipe a card and access the money that way," Russell emphasized.

As students learn about topics that include saving, budgeting, paying for a college education, investing and retirement, and giving, Russell, who is a graduate of Grasso Tech himself, said his goal is for about 15 students taking the course "to be able to make wise personal financial decisions throughout their life in order to live the life that they desire."

Personal finance education in high schools

Grasso Tech is among 250 high schools in the United States that the Jackson Charitable Foundation is sponsoring this year for the "Foundations in Personal Finance" course in response to a need to teach high school students about personal finance.

"So many kids are graduating from high school without knowing how to budget, how to save, or what to stay away from like massive student loans and credit cards," Curt Harding, media relations manager for Ramsey Solutions, said by email.

Russell said personal finance hasn't typically been taught in high schools, so many students graduate without understanding money.

"We've equipped them to know about biology but they don't know anything about the basics of how to operate their money once they start getting it," he said.

Interest in personal finance education is growing in Connecticut. In 2016-17, high schools had 6,239 students enrolled in such classes, up from about 3,379 in 2013-14, according to data from the Connecticut State Department of Education.

After the Connecticut General Assembly passed a law in 2015, the State Board of Education developed a model financial literacy and personal finance curriculum and provided assistance to school districts, said Peter A. Yazbak, director of communications for the state Department of Education. The department also encourages districts to incorporate financial literacy into their curriculum, including by providing grants and sponsoring an annual Middle and High School Personal Finance Conference.

Learning before they get out into the 'real world'

Russell said it's particularly important to teach students about personal finance, at a time when students on average have $30,000 in student loans.

Russell said he wants students to get their education but also wants to inform them of the options for paying for that education, without pushing any one of them. Options include working for a company that will pay for a college education; going to a community college, then leveraging the associate degree to get a better job to pay for a bachelor's degree; or entering the military. If students need to take out loans, he also gives them guidelines, such as ensuring they're obtaining a degree that would make it worthwhile to take out the student loans and not taking out more than $15,000 or $20,000 in total.

Russell also shares his own personal finance story so students can relate to him. Russell took on student loans, credit cards and car payments but, over the summer, he and his wife followed the Ramsey plan and were able to pay off $12,000 of debt in two and a half months over the summer, after he took on more jobs. They hope to be out of debt by January and, once debt-free, plan to live out of a van and travel around the country this summer.

Russell realized that personal finance needs to be taught to high schoolers before they get out in the real world, so they can be financially independent and live the life that they want to live without being burdened by student loans and credit card bills.

Jared LaCross, 16, a junior, said he's planning to get a job and then put away $500 in an emergency fund. He wants to constantly save throughout high school and not spend on things he doesn't need, so he can pay for most, if not all, of his car and college education in cash. He said if he ends up absolutely having no choice but to get a student loan, he knows to put as much money as possible into a down payment and try not to go into too much debt.  

Before the course, he figured he'd just take out a student loan and pay it off, but he now has learned about interest.

Alex Ricker, 16, a junior, said the course has taught him to set financial goals, such as creating an emergency fund, and to make a budget. He's now saving the money he earns at his job for college and then for a car and a house or apartment.

"So far, for every paycheck I’ve gotten I’m just pretty much throwing it into my savings," he said.

Karla Hernandez, 17, a junior, said personal finance should be taught to all high school students.

"I think this is a great opportunity for all high school teenagers to learn it, because one day we’re going to be out in the real world and we need to know all the stuff that we learned in here," she said.


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