Financial Resources, Money Management

Sarah’s garden of financial knowledge

DATE | 05/02/22
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Sarah sows seeds of financial wisdom in the classroom to help her students cultivate financial independence and take control of their financial futures.

Sarah Campbell has been sowing seeds since 2009. She has watched those seeds sprout, grow, and in some cases, produce. The seeds Sarah sows are the seeds of financial literacy.

Her passion for financial literacy sprouted in her second year of teaching when she made discoveries about how to cultivate enthusiasm for this important topic in her students. She struggled her first year, teaching content straight out of the textbook. “The kids didn’t care,” she told us.

But after taking courses at the National Institute for Financial and Economic Literacy during summer break, everything changed. The experience showed her how to engage students by making the information personal and real.

Over the last 13 years her methods have changed—going deeper and broader—to reflect the needs of students and to keep up with advancements in technology and the financial world. But she is still teaching Personal Finance at Wisconsin Dells High School (WDHS) with great determination, and her responsibilities have grown, giving her more opportunities to promote financial literacy. But what does financial literacy mean?

Digging deep

For Sarah, it’s not enough to simply understand financial concepts and best practices. It’s much bigger than that. Being financially literate, she says, is about looking at your financial life from many angles—like how you fit into the economy, understanding your role in managing your finances, what your decisions mean to you and those around you, and taking a hard look at what you want your life to be and understanding how finances play into your ability to achieve goals. Sarah likes the term financial independence—it plays like a drum beat in her classes. “It’s the ultimate goal. Regardless of how financially literate you are, the end game is financial independence.”

But Sarah digs deeper still, helping her students look inward at their financial beliefs and why they hold those beliefs. “Understanding the financial mindset that drives decisions, even those that don’t seem financial at the time, can be really useful and necessary.”

If it sounds a little philosophic, that’s because it is. Taking responsibility for your own financial position has been her emphasis from the start, telling students to ‘own’ their future. Her message was and still is, “It’s up to you to determine what you want your life to be like and how you are going to make it happen. No one else can do that for you.”

To incorporate her philosophy in the classroom, Sarah created characters they follow through the units. “I give them a variety of back stories and future plans to reflect the diversity in my class. We analyze their situations, create solutions, discuss back-up plans, and plot out future plans for them.”

And she says a change in scheduling has played to her advantage. Back in 2009, Sarah’s personal finance class lasted nine weeks. Not a lot of time to cover so much ground. That changed to 18 weeks after the district moved away from a block schedule. “I still have around 65 hours, but now it’s spread out into shorter chunks. For me, it’s a win. The longer time frame allows for more time for students to process the information and practice self-observation, and I have more time to build trusting relationships,” she explains.

“Understanding the financial mindset that drives decisions, even those that don’t seem financial at the time, can be really useful and necessary.”

Born to sow

“Without a doubt, imparting financial knowledge is what drives me in the classroom, and not just in the Personal Finance course. I incorporate a lot of financial literacy into my other classes AND my academic support period.” Her additional responsibilities give her plenty of opportunities. She serves as the MATC Dual-Credit Instructor for Accounting and Microsoft Office. Dual-credit courses, she explains, allow eligible students to complete their high school graduation requirements while earning college credits at no cost to the student. “But becoming the Youth Apprenticeship Coordinator was the biggest change to my duties. This program integrates school-based and work-based learning to instruct students in employability and occupational skills.” In essence, students get to “try on” possible career paths without the expense of post-high school courses. Sarah sees it as a time of discovery with very real financial implications.

“I had a student work for two years as an auto mechanic, and during his last semester realized he wasn’t happy. He was relieved that he didn’t waste two years of time and money after high school only to learn it wasn’t for him. Another student, interested in business, was able to complete an accounting program at MATC in a year and a half and begin working. It saved him both time and money,” she adds.

WDHS gives students a head start

Wisconsin Dells is one of just 800 school districts in the nation where a one-semester personal finance course is required for graduation. Currently, just one in six students across the nation graduate with a decent financial literacy education, and only 10 states guarantee at least a one semester course in personal finance before graduation. Wisconsin is not among them—leaving it up to the district to decide if and how they want to do it.

“High school is really the best time to get it into their head,” Sarah explains, “while they are on the cusp of major decisions that could determine the trajectory of their lives.”

Data supports Sarah’s hypothesis. Studies show that graduates of high schools with guaranteed financial education are 21% less likely to carry a balance on a credit card while in college1 and are less likely to fall prey to high-cost predatory loans (such as payday loans) than their peers without guaranteed financial education.2

Statistics like these, financial literacy advocates say, show that providing financial education offers a great return on investment.

“Regardless of how financially literate you are, the end game is financial independence.”

Reaping the harvest

Sarah also has a lot of personal examples where the seeds she sows yield good results.

“Just last summer a student stopped by on her way to college, literally packed up in her new (used) vehicle purchase. She was excited to tell me that although the dealer encouraged her to take a six-year loan to reduce monthly payments as a college student, she was adamant on a four-year loan because she did NOT want to have the loan follow her after college. She was so proud of herself,” Sarah shares.

Another time, she saw a student at a baseball game. “Always the jokester—he told me he bought a brand-new truck and stretched out the loan to seven years! But then he began laughing and said, ‘just kidding, I knew better than that.’ In reality, he purchased a used truck for a price that fit into his budget with a four-year loan.” Then his friend jumped in. “He said he got his first credit card and likes to max it out, then make only the minimum payments when he remembers. He broke out laughing too, and assured me he only uses it for gas and pays it off every month. They knew these things were the exact opposite of what I taught them and they didn’t want to disappoint me. Not only did they apply the concepts to make responsible choices, but they wanted me to know it, too. And, they enjoyed hassling me a little,” Sarah chuckles.

In her own backyard

Sarah’s ultimate goal of financial independence for her students is also something she strives for personally and teaches in her home.

In 2009, when her daughter was just three years old, Sarah was intentional about financial literacy—using real life experiences as teaching moments such as the act of using cash in the grocery store to demonstrate the value of money in a transaction. And the financial lessons continued over the last 12 years.

“Because it has always been just the two of us, we have a lot of discussions about opportunity cost—not necessarily using economic terms, but instead ideas. ‘If we did this, got this, spent this—then what would we be willing to give up.’”

When her daughter turned 15 last spring, she started her first part-time job at a local greenhouse. “She loves getting her email alert on paydays. She examines the hours, the taxes, and the amount sent to her savings account. She’s had a savings account for a long time, but now she can see how her actions affect the balance.”

Her daughter has also dabbled in buying stocks with the help of her uncle. “They decided on an amount to invest five or six years ago. She looked for businesses she believed in and purchased a handful of shares in several. She watches them and has seen the ups and downs in performance.”

Sarah’s perennial practice

As for Sarah, she continues to practice what she preaches “maybe to a fault,” she admits. “Sometimes I am a little too frugal. I do love a good garage sale!” Giving herself permission to splurge sometimes is maybe her greatest financial challenge. “I probably could loosen up and enjoy some spending, but my mindset has always been focused on the financial security side of life.”

Sarah set her path when she was a teenager, taking some of her earnings from summer jobs to open an IRA. Then, she opened a 403(b) when she started teaching and has continued to invest and increase her contributions over the years. Saving is second nature for her. “I feel a great sense of security when I open my statements, knowing that the money is growing and will eventually meet me when I need it.”

Her parents, who retired shortly after the 2009 interview after a combined 78 years of teaching, inspire her. “It is encouraging to see them enjoy a comfortable retirement because of their commitment to saving and investing for their future. It motivates me to stay on track.”

Sarah points to the purchase of her home as the most important financial decision she has made since we last talked. “I was able to buy a home in the neighborhood where I grew up. I’m proud that I managed a 15-year mortgage so it will be paid off in five more years.”

Looking to future seasons

This hard-line approach isn’t for everyone but it works for Sarah. As for her future? She will continue to sow financial literacy seeds at WDHS in and out of the classroom. “I want to grow the Youth Apprenticeship program to reach more students and allow for more opportunities in all career paths,” she says. This school year she doubled enrollment in the program and looks to continue that trend.

“Personally, the next big step for me will be helping my daughter take her next steps in education.” The contributions Sarah has been making to her 529 college savings plan will help with the cost, but you can be sure her daughter will be involved in the financial aspects of her higher education. It’s just how Sarah helps good things grow.

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1 Stoddard, C. and Urban, C. (2018). The Effects of K-12 Financial Education Mandates on Student Postsecondary Education Outcomes.
2 Harvey, M. (2019) Impact of Financial Education Mandates on Younger Consumers’ Use of Alternative Financial Services. The Journal of Consumer Affairs.