Why Personal Finance Classes Should Be Taught in College

Personal Finance
iStock_000083850999_Small

By Brad Sherman

Learn more about Brad on NerdWallet’s Ask An Advisor

I recently returned from a reunion weekend with some of my college buddies. We caught up on wives, kids, work and all the other important parts of our lives. One thing struck me about the conversations, no matter whether I was speaking with liberal arts majors or those who studied corporate finance: While we all know that E=MC2 and maybe even know a fair amount about Einstein’s theory, most of them graduated without having a real clue about personal finance.

In other words, the financial skills we learn in school are not necessarily the ones we need in the real world — at least when it comes to our personal lives.

Personal finance is not typically part of a college curriculum. And while some of us have parents or family members who can guide us along the way, those individuals may not be financial experts, and there is a limit to the help they can provide.

From my experience, most people are interested in financial literacy but don’t know where to go to get started. We all face similar issues, and the less familiar we are with the mechanics of approaching them, the more anxiety-provoking they become.

The younger you learn, the better off you are. When I was in the first grade, I wanted to be Alex P. Keaton, the money-savvy teenager played by Michael J. Fox on the television sitcom “Family Ties.” It was clear early on that I had an affinity for sound saving, investing and growing money. When I was 7, my grandmother gave me a dollar; I turned it into $5, then $50. I am thrilled by the challenge of helping people reach their financial goals at all stages of their lives.

For example, take buying that first home. Your career is on track, and becoming a homeowner seems like an appropriate goal. So with some excitement and anticipation, you decide to start looking.

Then the questions begin flooding in. How much home can I afford? How much should I be saving? When is the ideal time to buy? How does a mortgage work? Will I qualify? What’s my credit score? Do I need insurance? How do property taxes work?

Imagine if there were a course in college (let’s not get crazy and imagine they would teach this in high school) called Personal Finance 101. In addition to the homebuying lessons above, the curriculum could look something like this:

Cash flow and budgeting

Topics covered: What is a budget? How do I create one? How do I know what I can afford?

Building credit and understanding credit cards

Topics covered: What are the advantages and disadvantages of owning a credit card? How should I decide which one to get?

Intro to the stock market and investing

Topics covered: What are the differences in the various investment vehicles — exchange-traded funds, mutual funds, stocks, bonds, certificates of deposit?

Taxes

Topics covered: How do I pay taxes? What do I need to pay attention to in my tax planning?

Future workplace retirement plan options

Topics covered: What is a 401(k), IRA, Roth IRA? When should I start saving? How much should I save?

My guess is that a course like this would be incredibly valuable to many. It’s complicated stuff. It’s important stuff. It’s the kind of stuff that you actually need to know.

This is the main reason I chose to get in this line of work. Younger people have no idea where or how to start, and they have no idea where to find help. Traditional financial management institutions have investment minimums that most of us won’t be able to meet for over a decade, if ever. These minimums can range from $250,000 to $500,000, and sometimes are higher. Even if you were fortunate enough to be accepted by a big institutional investment manager, you’re kidding yourself if you think a large institution is going to take the time to explain to you the difference between a traditional IRA and a Roth IRA.

That’s why I chose to create a wealth management model where we would provide the same customized service to all of our clients, without consideration of a minimum initial investment and irrespective of the size of their accounts. We hope that by investing in you early, you’ll see our value for the long term.

If you are reading this and can relate to some of these thoughts, know that it’s not just you. It doesn’t matter whether you majored in art or corporate finance, you almost certainly did not take a class in Personal Finance 101. The good news is, you don’t have to go at it alone. Seek the help that is out there, and learn what you may have missed in college.

Brad Sherman is a financial planner and the founder of Sherman Wealth Management in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

This article also appears on Nasdaq.