Helping Kids Achieve Financial Literacy

A number of online games teach children about earning, saving and investing money.
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April is Financial Literacy month. How financially literate are

your

children? Today's kids are pretty good at spending money, but very few are getting any lessons about earning, saving and investing money. Here are some easy -- and fun -- ways to solve that problem.

Your children are playing all kinds of games online, so why shouldn't some of them teach about money? That's the premise of a variety of Web sites instituted by financial services firms, hoping to get your kids off to a good financial start.

The latest, and easily the most creative, of those sites is offered by

A.G. Edwards

(AGE) - Get Report

, the national brokerage firm. It's called Savings Quest, and the opening narration tells kids that it's a game that tests your ability to "save for the things you want, while paying for all the things you need." Players pick a job, build a budget to pay real bills, deal with unexpected expenses and still set aside enough money to reach a specific savings goal.

The interactive graphics and sound, as well as the "attitude" of the audio game guide, combine to make this a pretty enticing site for young teens. Sophie Beckmann, financial planning specialist at A.G. Edwards, who helped create the game, says it was tested on kids, including her 12-year-old, and designed to appeal to a generation that knows how to learn from fast-paced, stimulating online environments.

At the start of the game, kids get to create a character, including color of skin, eyes, and hair -- and then name him or her. The next step is to choose a profession, ranging from accountant to detective. Each profession requires different skills, from math to geography to spelling. And each profession comes with a salary -- money that can be earned if the child completes an "assignment."

Now it's time to create a real savings goal -- priced in real dollars. It could be a new game system and five games for $500, a big-screen TV for $1500 or two weeks at a sports camp for $3,000. (The brokerage firm obviously figures its clients' children will be among the players -- and well able to dream about big-ticket items!) You can also create your own individual savings goal. The announcer reminds players that these are "short-term" goals, for which they have only six months to save.

Reality quickly sets in, because the next step is the budget. The announcer lets players know that "every month you'll earn $2,000." But then there's an immediate reminder that every month $200 will be deducted from their paychecks for their retirement accounts -- a long-term savings goal.

And they'll pay $400 every month for taxes -- to cover things such as police and government services. It's a real life lesson that what you "earn" is not necessarily what you keep! With the remaining $1400, players start to make their budgets.

The budget includes fixed expenses such as rent, utilities, food and car insurance and gas. The trick is to cover all those expenses -- and have extra money for the unexpected -- while setting aside money every month toward savings.

Suddenly, it hits me. This game isn't necessarily aimed at preteens. It might be just the thing for college kids! No kidding, the next step has players choosing an apartment -- deciding whether it's better to live close to work so they can save on gas or in a larger apartment that allows pets. You're guaranteed to chuckle out loud at the scenarios offered.

Car insurance costs $55 a month. Then players have to decide on a food budget, with a reminder that cooking at home can save them money. The "fun" category includes money for concert tickets or movies. I don't want to spoil it for you -- or your kids. So take 15 minutes and sit down at the computer with them. Just go to

www.mysavingsquest.com and either play the game or watch the demo.

(Teachers who find this program interesting can request additional classroom materials from A. G. Edwards.)

More Money Fun & Games

If you know where to look on the Web, there are many opportunities to get your kids involved in financial fun.

The Stock Market Game: This is a long-running project of the Investment Company Institute, the trade association for mutual funds. It gives students the opportunity to invest a hypothetical $100,000 in a real-time portfolio. The game teaches financial and economic concepts, so kids learn more than stock picking and trading. Many middle and high school teachers are using this "game" as a classroom project, and support materials are available. There are regional competitions and contests. While this is an online game, schools that do not have those resources can compete using a paper-based version.

The NEFE Teen Resources Bureau: The NEFE Teen Resources Bureau focuses on teaching teens money management skills. While it's not truly a "game," it does have an appeal since it talks about money on a teen level. Truly appealing is a section that helps teens figure out how much they really need to move out on their own.

Practical Money Skills for Life: This Web site, created by VISA, is dedicated to financial literacy. It's suitable for those home-schooling their children. It has "games" for specific age groups, ranging from teens to adults, and an entire section aimed at teachers who want practical projects for their classrooms.

I couldn't write about kids and money without mentioning

Junior Achievement. (I sit on its Chicago board.) JA is no longer an after-school business project. These days it uses volunteers to teach kids about economic concepts, starting in kindergarten and through the high school level. In Chicago alone, JA reaches 340,000 students every year. Become a volunteer in your local school system by contacting the national Junior Achievement organization.

If we want a future workforce that understands and appreciates business and the free enterprise economy, we'll have to train our kids. It's better to start young. And that's the Savage Truth.

Terry Savage is an expert on personal finance and also appears as a commentator on national television on issues related to investing and the financial markets. Savage?s personal finance column in the Chicago Sun-Times is nationally syndicated, and she released her fourth book,

The Savage Number: How Much Money Do You Need?

in June 2005. Savage was the first woman trader on the Chicago Board Options Exchange and is a registered investment adviser for stocks and futures. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Michigan, Savage currently serves as a director of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Corp. She also has served on the boards of McDonald?s and Pennzoil.