Combating Financial Illiteracy— One Student at a Time

Why students need to understand budgeting, saving, investing and avoiding debt 

How important is financial literacy? To people like Rivka Resnik, the answer is simple: very. “Someone who is financially literate is going to make better financial decisions,” says Resnik. “If you don’t understand that using a credit card is borrowing money from a company, then it’s hard for you to realize that every time you swipe your card, you are really just taking on more debt.”

A resident of Monsey, New York, Resnik, who credits her parents with instilling in her solid values with regard to handling finances, is on a crusade to change the money habits she feels are responsible for getting many into serious financial trouble. And while it seems like an exceedingly ambitious goal, she has made significant inroads—primarily in the classroom. Since 1992 (on and off), Resnik has taught hundreds of frum students on the elementary and high school level all about financial responsibility. In addition, she created a comprehensive curriculum—replete with colorful worksheets—to teach young people how to be money-smart.

Educator Rivka Resnik created a comprehensive curriculum—replete with colorful worksheets—to teach kids and teens all about financial literacy. Courtesy of Rivka Resnik

Noting that when her solidly middle-class parents would take her and her two siblings out for pizza they would never pay for drinks (why pay $2.75 for a bottle of water when we can get one for a dollar?), Resnik sees way too much unnecessary spending around her. “Why are people buying layette sets for $200? Why does an outfit for a seven-year-old need to cost $100?” She also bemoans the message thoughtless spending conveys to children. “If kids see their parents spend $100,000 on a wedding and then approach the tuition committee for a break, that’s a contradiction in values.”

The way to put an end to frivolous spending, says Resnik, is obvious: education. Back in the nineties, when she lived in Chicago, she teamed up with the late Saul Binder, the then-CEO of Success National Bank, and launched a “Bank at School” educational program at Joan Dachs Bais Yaakov, a local elementary school. The program, which included monthly visits from a bank representative who would deposit money that the girls had brought in, covered topics such as saving money, opening bank accounts and other practical aspects of banking.

Resnik, who currently teaches at Bais Rochel and Pe’er Bais Yaakov, both in Monsey, developed the curriculum over time. Through her popular money management course, which includes topics such as budgeting, saving, eliminating debt and investing, she hopes to change cultural attitudes toward spending and saving, one student at a time. “In the course, students are exposed to three simple principles: Spend less than you earn. Make your money work for you (lessons about banks and credit unions, simple and compound interest, CDs, et cetera). And be prepared for the unexpected (emergency funds, i.e., ‘saving for a rainy day’).”

Resnik has a very specific idea of what an emergency fund should be used for. “People need to realize that an emergency fund is not for when you’re making a bar mitzvah. You had years to prepare for that. An emergency fund is for when you chip your front tooth and need to pay the dentist,” she explains. Giving students such knowledge lays a solid foundation for them to build “strong money habits, which will hopefully help them avoid many mistakes that can lead to lifelong monetary struggles.”

Indeed, courses on financial skills geared for teens have become increasingly popular in recent years. According to a New York Times article, high school students in more than twenty US states are now required to take a financial literacy course in order to graduate. Moreover, according to the same article, a growing number of studies support the notion that such courses are effective when taught by well-trained teachers (Shannon Doyne, “Should All Schools Teach Financial Literacy?,” April 20, 2021).

Giving students such knowledge lays a solid foundation for them to build “strong money habits, which will hopefully help them avoid many mistakes that can lead to lifelong monetary struggles.”

Resnik is eager to share her own financial struggles. When her husband finished medical school decades ago, the couple found themselves $110,000 in debt. But even with her husband on a resident’s modest salary, they managed to pay off the debt in two-and-a-half years. “We didn’t buy anything,” she says. “We put every single dollar toward paying back our loan so we wouldn’t have a noose around our necks.”

After getting way more teaching offers than she could possibly take on, Resnik recently decided to expand her reach. She is currently working with the OU to disseminate her curriculum among Jewish schools throughout the country to ensure that her principles of financial responsibility are reaching kids and teens across the Orthodox spectrum. “The idea,” she says, “is to become a more fiscally responsible frum kehillah.”

For schools interested in obtaining the curriculum, email info@livingsmarterJewish.org.

 

How to Take Control of Your Finances

By Rivka Resnik

1. Spend less than you earn.

2. Differentiate between your needs and wants.

3. Inevitably, throughout your life, you will have unexpected expenses. Start saving now.

4. Avoid comparing your financial situation to others.

5. Prepare for larger known future expenses such as insurance premiums and retirement.

 

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This article was featured in the Fall 2021 issue of Jewish Action.
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