By: Bonnie Miller Rubin
April 6, 2010
In a dreary classroom overlooking a blighted block on the South Side, I watched three University of Chicago students teach seniors at Hales Franciscan High School the finer points of money management. I came expecting tips on budgeting and instead found that elusive place called "common ground."
So, for the next hour, the mentors -- just a year or two older than their mentees -- led a lively discussion on everything from net worth to entrepreneurship, made more accessible by shared interests and a generous dollop of pop culture.
Cautionary tales did not swirl around Lehman Brothers or AIG, but rather the freewheeling spending of Lil Wayne (and his weakness for diamond-encrusted grills for his teeth) and NBA star Antoine Walker (whose unpaid debts totaled $4 million, despite $110 million in career earnings). It may have been the last period of the day, on a Friday, no less, but the Hales students were rapt.
Called Moneythink, the10-week financial education program was started in January 2009 by four University of Chicago students passionate about investing -- and public service.
"We united around the idea that even though we're at this great, private institution ... the community around us was afflicted with endemic poverty," said Ted Gonder, one of the founders. "No one was tackling the root of the issue, which we believed was financial illiteracy."
So far, 30 Moneythink mentors from the University of Chicago have taught more than 500 students in Chicago, and the concept has spread to 10 other universities across the country. It's an impressive record, given that Moneythink has run on little more than small donations and the bone-deep belief that if you give people the tools, they'll build something better, including a stock portfolio.
"An asset is like water pouring into a tub, while a liability is like the drain," explained Anthony Farias-Eisner, a freshman from Los Angeles. He asked the young men -- most of whom are going on to college -- to take stock of their own balance sheets. Hands shot up like mushrooms after a rain.
On the plus side: Grades, work ethic, athletic skills and grandmothers. Negatives? "Girlfriends," they groaned in unison.
Later the students shared some of their financial triumphs. One Hales senior, headed for Tuskegee University on a full scholarship next fall, regaled the class with the story of spending his latest paycheck on a CD, as in certificate of deposit, not compact disc. "It's just the coolest feeling," he exclaimed.
Another told an anecdote about how he got into the habit of throwing spare change into a cup on the dashboard and was rescued by his accidental nest egg one night when both his gas tank and his wallet were empty. You could almost see light bulbs going off.
Handling money, of course, is something everyone needs to know, whether you are an over-leveraged homeowner or a teen cashing a paycheck from McDonald's.
"But a lot of kids just don't get to hear much about it at home," said Principal Arthur Reliford. One of the bonuses of Moneythink, he said, is that the students are not the only beneficiaries: "They're educating Mom. They're saying, 'Don't use a money order to pay tuition. Let's go open a checking account.' "
As I left the class, I found myself thinking not about 401(k)s, but IOUs. I thought about young people who are as concerned with "where's yours?" as much as "where's mine?" And how on the ledger of life, the most valuable commodity is still compassion.