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Financial Education More Than Just Child’s Play
By DAVID HALDANE - 7/20/2009
Courtesy - Los Angeles Business Journal

Lorraine Sharkey, 51, has stopped using her Macy’s credit card except for “extreme emergencies.”

Lucy Santos, 34, has consolidated a $17,000 debt into one monthly payment and opened a savings account.

Both are among the nation’s first adult graduates of Finance Park, a boot camp for home-budgeting that’s traditionally been available only to kids. Junior Achievement of Southern California, historically dedicated to helping school children understand and succeed in the free-enterprise system, has become the nation’s first J.A. chapter officially to spread its wings by offering a program to adults.

“Every time we’d bring people in to show them what we were developing for children,” said Gary Hickman, president of the worldwide organization’s L.A.-based Southern California chapter, “everyone, to a person, said, ‘You need this for adults.’ ”

So, shortly after the non-profit opened its $2 million facility near Griffith Park 18 months ago, it started allowing grown-ups to attend special sessions in the evenings and on weekends. Children still attend the usual classes during the week.

“Everyone needs financial education,” Executive Vice President Margo White said. “It doesn’t matter how old you are.”

The 11,000-square-foot facility is the first of its kind in California. Resembling a movie set, Finance Park is made up of 19 separate stations, each a storefront representing one of life’s primary or secondary expenses. Upon entering, a visitor is given a pretend “debit” card with age, marital status, number of children and gross annual income assigned.

The challenge, officials said, is to pass through the financial “obstacle” course while retaining a positive balance on the card.

“It involves making financial decisions,” White said. “If you end up in the red, you have to go back.”

Among the issues encountered are what kind of housing to secure and how much to pay for it; procuring transportation; covering gas, electricity, telephone and water bills; buying clothing and groceries; getting insurance; saving money and accessing health care. So-called secondary expenses include education, entertainment, home improvement, fitness and recreation, dining out, giving to non-profits and dealing with various unanticipated crises.

To date, Hickman said, more than 10,000 K-12 youngsters have undergone the four-hour park experience, as well as about 1,000 adults.

Cynthia Hoffman, executive vice president of marketing and communications for Junior Achievement worldwide, said that Finance Park programs are available in several other states, but she knows of no others accepting adults.

“We neither encourage it nor discourage it,” she said of adult involvement. “Adults would not be part of our measurement of success.”

On the other hand, Tom Beck, president of the National Endowment for Financial Education ,which has partnered with Junior Achievement in developing certain financial curriculums, describes as “brilliant” the idea of teaching financial literacy to grown-ups.

“It sounds very innovative and it’s a trend that I would encourage,” Beck said. “You need the tools and education to make economic decisions and you need them throughout your life.”

Hickman believes this is especially true at a time “when many people were caught embarrassed and red-faced in this economy because they didn’t plan their personal lives” in ways that avoided financial chaos.

“We’re saying now, more than ever, that you better have a structure; better understand where your money is going and why,” he said.

The advantages to business are clear.

“You’ll have people who can participate in our system instead of filing bankruptcy or racking up debts they can’t repay,” he said. “They can become consumers and their purchasing power goes up.”

The non-profit agency, which runs on an annual budget of about $4 million for its usual youth-oriented programming, is paying for the new adult education in various ways.

It is sharing a three-year, $600,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development with Los Angeles Valley College in Van Nuys, which has already sent more than 200 adult students and community members through Finance Park.

It is inviting community groups, other non-profits and some for-profit companies to experience the park on evenings and weekends for about $30 per person per hour.

And, Hickman said, the group has even approached bankruptcy courts encouraging them to send clients, noting that “we’re trying to be creative” about mining new markets.

Many who have gone through the program express no regret.

“It helped my marriage,” said Doug Marriott, a project director in Valley College’s job training department who experienced the financial simulation himself. “It helped my wife and I communicate.”

Added Roger Arias, 22, who said the program taught him how to maintain a small cash reserve: “It definitely changed my way of thinking.”

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