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Mailbag: What To Teach High School Seniors?

“G” writes in:

I’m planning on trying to teach a short lesson on personal finance to my sister’s high school students (seniors). I’m wondering if you have ideas for an outline of what such a lesson might look like.

I think it’s great that you have the opportunity to educate high school students and I think it would be fantastic if you could do so in an engaging way by talking about topics that they can actually relate to!

At a time when they are ready to head off to college, they are at a perfect age for lessons in personal finance. Remind them that when they get to college, nobody will be there to watch their spending and it will be up to them to decide how to spend their money. I think there are two main topics that are both interesting and important: Planning and Saving.

Obviously those are two very broad topics, so let me break them down a little more to help explain.


With planning, I’m talking about budgeting. There’s nothing more important than knowing where your money is going, how you’re spending it, and where you need to cut back. Without a plan of how you’re going to spend you’re money, you’ll never be in control of your finances.

Instead of introducing them to software or talking about a budget calculator, I think a good exercise could be naming the important things we spend money on. My guess is that they would include housing, food, and clothes as the most important. But with a limited budget it’s important to note that if they were spending a lot of money on a gorgeous apartment, that would mean less money for shopping.

My suggestion would be to make it fun and give them $1,000 and then ask how they would split it up. The dollar amounts of the different expenses aren’t important, but if everything starts at $250 and increases or decreases, they should be able to understand how increasing in one category means decreasing in another. It’s up to them to find the right balance.


Compounding interest is one of my favorite personal finance topics and the earlier you take advantage, the more you are able to benefit. I think examples are very important. Start out small and then show how over time, savings continue to grow.

Here’s how I would do it:

First, I’d explain that when your choice is between spending and saving, it’s difficult because you can either get something now or you can get something later. But, if you understand the magic of savings, you find out that by putting money away now, you’ll have much more in the future.

The example could be a showing $100 going toward buying something today versus the saving you put away for 10 years. At 10% interest (to make it simple) that grows to $110 by their Sophomore year or $146 by the time graduation rolls around. They’ll quickly see that while the trade off between having it now and later isn’t appealing to their present situation, they should be reminded that whatever they want now is likely only temporary, but if they put the money away, they’ll have lots of opportunities later and they’ll have more money too!

With all lessons, I think the way it’s taught is more important than the content. If you can’t get through to them, it won’t have any effect. Participation is key, and the best way to do that is to show how this really will affect their lives. Give examples of how you had to use budgeting and these are some of the things you wish you had been taught.

Of course, there are plenty of other topics you could discuss: credit and how to get your credit report, the basics of investing, or student loans, but I think the two outlined above will have the best impact for your audience.

Good luck and let us know how it goes!



  1. I like your simple lesson plan. I would definitely involve them in the lesson, giving them “play” money or a checkbook and a scenario they have to work out after introducing budgeting and saving would be a great strategy to get everyone on board. Maybe have cards they choose and each card has a different scenario on it, such as your electric bill was higher than you anticipated, you owe $175, etc. To wrap up the lesson, I’d have some of the students share their outcome based on the choices (or cards) they made.

  2. they never taught us anything about money management and wealth creation when i was growing up. They just told us to read ourselves to to grave and the money would automatically come. I wish things are that simple.

  3. I liked the idea of hands on teaching…give them that suggested $1000 in fake money so they can physically see their “budget” and break it down into named categories (rent, food, supplies, entertainment, etc). Great suggestions!

  4. What about investing? Seems like you should save some time to talk about that. And credit cards – definitely credit cards, since most of them will be 18 or almost 18.

    • @Jenna, What do you think would be a good way to introduce credit cards? I think investing is a little bit farther down the line, but learning about credit cards could be useful. Is the only lesson stay away? Or is there a way to teach responsible use during college?

  5. Pound home the compounding interest point. Hand out charts, draw stuff on the board, just pound it home. I still remember when I first learned about it – a junior in college during stats class. I was SOOOO fascinated! I really wish I had known about it earlier. I still remember the charts and graphs my prof used, which is why I am saying use handouts and use the chalk board – really make an impact here!

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