Financial Literacy for High School Students
High school is a critical time for students to develop the personal finance skills they will need to live independently as adults. Mastering the foundations of financial literacy is the best way to set them up for a life full of healthy financial habits, ensuring their future success.
Students at this age may already be familiar with money management concepts like credit or loans and how to use them. But now it’s time to dig deeper and teach about real-world applications of financial choices.
In this financial literacy guide for high school students, we cover the following:
- 5 key financial literacy concepts
- Online resources for teaching financial literacy to high school students
- Apps and games for teaching financial literacy to high school students
- Expert tips for teaching financial literacy to high school students
- Financial Literacy Spotlight: Olney Charter High School
5 key financial literacy concepts
High school students need to know about their financial options for higher education and future career options. This includes financing options (hello, student loans) and how to choose a career based on an expectation of quality of life (hopefully while living within their means).
We put together the need-to-know financial concepts that high school students should master before graduating and entering the real world — whether that’s tackling higher education or finding a job. Plus, we’ve included great insights from educators familiar with teaching personal finance to high school students.
Concept No. 1: Budgeting to achieve financial goals
Teens should already know about income and expenses. Now is the time for them to master how to control the inflow and outflow of money by creating and sticking to a spending plan.
This is especially useful considering that many students in high school may earn money of their own, whether from a summer job or paid internship.
- Starting a budget. Budgeting is all about prioritizing income and expenses. Income should equal expenses, with every dollar assigned to a purpose, including saving. By assigning each dollar to an expense, you’ll know where and how your money is spent.
- Saving. Putting aside money now allows us to have money to spend later. By contributing to a savings account like an emergency fund, you can achieve short-term and long-term financial goals.
Concept No. 2: Consumer skills are based on informed decisions
The ability to make smart decisions about where and how to spend money is a powerful tool. Teens can practice their consumer decision-making skills with real-world scenarios, such as making smart purchases, by comparison shopping.
- Comparison shopping. Get the most bang for your buck by shopping around before making a purchase. By spending money wisely, you can balance the quantity and quality of each purchase in order to get the best value.
Concept No. 3: Understand the risks of credit and loans
High school students may want or need a credit card or a student loan soon.
Before entering an agreement with the chance of racking up debt, students need to know about the risks of different types of borrowing, including both credit and loans.
Teens also need to know about ways to minimize risk, such as by purchasing insurance. While they are likely not responsible for purchasing insurance right now, they will be in the future when they own a car or rent an apartment.
- Debt. Credit and loans can cause debt. Debt should be avoided as it counts against a borrower’s total wealth.
- Risk. Borrowing on credit comes with risk. Interest is charged on borrowed money, making each purchase more expensive than the cost of the original expense. The biggest risk with credit is missing a payment, which can impact a borrower’s creditworthiness and potentially lead to repossession or foreclosure.
- Insurance. There are ways to mitigate risk, such as by purchasing insurance that pays back the policy holder in case of a valid claim. Insurance can cover health and property, like cars and homes.
Concept No. 4: Reap the benefits of credit and loans
There is such a thing as good credit, which allows the borrower to make purchases that contribute to building wealth. For instance, being able to pay for college with student loans or buy a house with a home loan are ways credit allows borrowers to invest in long-term choices.
Teens should learn how to effectively manage credit and loans in order to maintain a healthy credit history, increase a credit score, and build wealth.
- Credit. Credit is a tool that can be good or bad. Credit card debt is typically bad as it charges interest on purchases a borrower can’t afford. Loan debt can be good (but aren’t always) if student loans allow a borrower to finance an education with the hope of earning a higher income.
- Building wealth. By taking on credit or loans in order to invest in a financial goal, such as education or homeownership, a borrower can start building wealth while paying off debt. Saving and investing are the best strategies to building wealth.
Concept No. 5: Education and career choices impact quality of life
After high school graduation, teens have the choice to either pursue education or get a job. Teens will have to envision the life they want to lead and make the choice based on understanding the correlation among education, career, and earning potential.
By understanding education and career opportunities, a student can make an informed decision on life-altering choices, from the college they attend to the amount they take out in student loans.
- Earning potential. A lifetime income potential is how much you can expect to make with a top salary at the height of a field or profession. Take the education and career steps needed to achieve professional and financial goals.
Online resources for teaching financial literacy to high school students
The best resources for teaching high schoolers financial literacy, including nonprofits and governmental departments.
- For students, educators, and parents
- Provides curriculum, lesson plans, handouts, and performance assessments
The NEFE’s High School Financial Planning Program® (HSFPP) is a financial literacy program based on the foundations of personal finance, but made relevant to teens’ lives. The program provides a curriculum, lesson plans, and materials for in-person teaching, and is best suited for educators who plan to teach in a classroom, workshop, or in a one-on-one scenario.
- For educators and parents
- Provides curriculum, lesson plans, and presentations
The NFEC provides financial literacy curriculum catered to high school students for educators. The program is designed to be both rigorous and engaging for students, with high-quality materials like lesson plans and presentations for educators. The lesson plans are touted as being accessible to any audience, regardless of age and socioeconomic status.
- For educators and parents
- Provides lesson plans and worksheets
The InCharge financial literacy program contains a whopping 14 lesson plans and complementary worksheets. That’s enough material for a full semester course in personal finance! It comes with a teacher’s guide, student’s guide, and plenty of presentation material.
- For students, educators, and parents
- Provides online courses and articles
Interested in money management? The The Hands on Banking® learning center provides plenty of resources, like in-depth articles, to answer questions about budgeting and credit. The online courses are self directed, and allow the user to learn about financial literacy topics at each stage of life. For high schoolers, there are classroom resources that are great for educators.
- For educators and parents
- Provides lesson plans
The FDIC’s ’s Money Smart for Young People series contains four age-based curriculum programs at no cost to educators. The high school-appropriate curriculum includes lesson plans, guides, and resources that are easy enough for both educators and parents to use. The best part: Materials can be integrated into preexisting school courses, like English or Math.
Apps and games for teaching financial literacy to high school students
High school students can flex their new financial literacy skills by using these fun and educational games and apps.
- Cost: free
- Available for iOS and Android
Visa created this free app to help teens and their parents budget for prom and prom-related expenses. Plan’it Prom is essentially a budgeting app that includes a countdown to the big day, a timeline of when to save, and a budget calculator. Students can learn to cut costs and achieve their short- or long-term budget goals by planning for a real event.
- Cost: free
- Available for iOS and Android
Calling all sports enthusiasts, Visa created an NFL-themed mobile game that also teaches personal finance skills. The game is fast-paced and interactive with newly released 3D graphics. Educators can assign the game to students and then track their progress with the game’s useful ability for students to email their Financial Football results.
- Cost: free
- Available for web, iOS, and Android
SIFMA Foundation’s Stock Market Game™ is an online simulation that allows students to make investment decisions in a global capital market. The Stock Market Game™ has different versions for grades 4 through 12. According to the website, educators enjoy the game’s results of increased classroom engagement and valuable financial lessons. As a bonus, once a classroom has signed up, each student will be able to access their personal portfolio on the accompanying mobile app.
- Cost: free
- Available for web
Gen i Revolution is a mission-based online game in which middle or high school students can save people in financial trouble. Students need to log on, create an account, pick their operative, and then start exploring the game universe and working to complete each of the 16 missions. The game also allows students to compete against their classmates, making it great for a classroom-wide competition.
- Cost: free
- Available for web
Consider this: Immortality might not bite if you have a chance to pay down debt and build wealth...forever.
Vampires and financial literacy unite in this online game that encourages saving and investing. Bite Club teaches students that each of their financial choices can have a huge impact on their future. Players will manage resources for 15 rounds (the game equivalent of 45 years) and plan for retirement while living within their means.
Expert tips for teaching financial literacy to high school students
Teach financial literacy through art
Clarence McFerren II, Ed.S., public high school educator
As a former finance specialist paratrooper in the U.S. Army, I understand the importance of [personal finance] and I take it upon myself to infuse financial literacy in my performing arts classes.
My dance and theater students are inspired to develop critical thinking, problem solving, and responsible decision-making skills throughout the course. I use percentages to make sure the students understand how to calculate sales tax, interest rates, and proposed discounts so they can make informed decisions about dance attire, performance make-up, costumes, and set design materials, etc. This allows the students to learn about real-life scenarios within the field of the arts that can translate to a wide range of areas, such as buying a car, house, groceries, cell phone, shoes, and clothing.
Additionally, I hope they start to incorporate some of the skills they are learning now into their daily practice to perfect them over time with trial and error before it’s too late.
Focus on the life cycle of student debt
Jim Anderson, founder of Making College Worth It
I believe high school students should have an understanding of the financial situations ahead of them. Given my profession of college and financial aid planning, I believe students should understand the life cycle of student debt. That includes different kinds of student loans, their terms (subsidized or unsubsidized), and repayment options. [They should partake in] sample run-throughs for each option and their [anticipated] career and salary. Effectively, they should play The Game of Life with various debts and payments.
Mix life literacy and finance
Danita Harris, managing member at Guice Wealth Management and financial literacy educator
High school students know more than we give them credit for. Those I teach have a mix of basic level to far beyond a basic level of education about finances. It is always exciting to see students who have more understanding than the average adult.
When preparing high school students in general, I like mixing literacy for life and finances together, as they go hand in hand. Average things like keeping up with their checking account ledger [and] understanding the nuances of how money flows in and out of their accounts [are particularly useful to keep them from accruing overdraft fees].
Relate real-world financial situations
Jim Wasserman, retired teacher of economics and media literacy and writer at Your Third Life
[There are] two errors many education programs make in teaching financial literacy to students:
Students are not future participants in finance and consumption. One textbook in my class kept discussing how to prepare students for making financial decisions. In fact, students have been in the game since they were first exposed to media. Their values, attitudes, and habits about money have been shaped since childhood. Unfortunately, the message tends to be ‘spend now and worry about saving someday.’
Real-world financial examples need to be from high schoolers’ real world, not the adults. Often, educators teach financial literacy by having kids pretend to buy a home, pretend to have a family, and [acting out] other examples they will probably face in the future. The problem is the examples are still theoretical for most high schoolers, so they remain abstract and don't stick. Using smaller examples [that are] closer to the teen experience — financing a car or other desired product, [deciding if it is] worth it to get a job after school, even planning a budget for prom — go a long way to make it real for kids, giving them a sound basis to build on.
Make a connection to the “why” of personal finance
Brilene Faherty, curriculum director at Money Experience
[W]e need to focus first on teaching students why they should care about their finances rather than lecturing on how they should handle them. [E]ducation that focuses on ‘why’ will motivate students to stay involved in the ‘how’ of each decision throughout their financial lives.
At the high school level, I feel strongly that we should start with these basics:
Focus on personal priorities. Have the students’ stock of what is actually important to them and what makes them happy, and then explore financial decisions that reflect that hierarchy.
Connect their finances and their real lives by thinking about quality of life. Once students identify what’s important, it’s easier to pinpoint and weed out any spending habits that are not aligned with their personal priorities.
Consider and personalize long-term outcomes. Help students empathize with their future selves and priorities so they can buckle down on saving for the lifestyles that appeal to them most.
Dan LaSalle founded Olney Charter School’s personal finance program in the fall of 2015.
Students who enroll in the program commit to taking three personal finance classes and then have the option to work at the school. Students can make between $50 to $5,000 for teaching, tutoring, or leading clubs. Hours are flexible, so that working doesn’t interrupt a student’s educational responsibilities.
Olney’s personal finance program is unique, because it is the only one in the country that pays high school students to work. Armed with a paycheck, students are then guided through the banking process -- opening checking and savings accounts. This is a huge achievement, considering many of the students’ families don’t have bank accounts.
The man behind the program
LaSalle was a 30-year-old English teacher at the time of the program’s inception.
Understanding the importance of personal finance, LaSalle entered a teacher grant competition provided by the Philadelphia Academy of School Leaders. According to its website, the Philadelphia Academy of School Leaders provides the Teacher-Leader Collaborative Grants program with $5,000 to $15,000 to address a school-specific challenge to student learning.
LaSalle, who is now the school’s assistant vice principal, ultimately won $15,000 in funding to start Olney’s personal finance program.
According to its website, Olney Charter High School is “committed to establishing, preserving, and empowering [its] students with a caring and high-quality education.” Olney also “look[s] to inspire [its] students to become global thinkers and conscious leaders as they actively persevere towards excellence.”
Educators at Olney embody the school’s motto. And LaSalle, the man behind the program, has proved it.
How does the school fund the program?
LaSalle continues to fundraise in order to pay a salary to enrolled, working students. In 2019, he raised $88,500 from individual donors. He has raised more than $100,000 for 2020.
By assuming each student will earn an average of $500, he determines how many students can enroll. Thanks to donations, LaSalle can enroll about 200 students in 2020 -- a drastic increase from the 30 students who enrolled in the first year of the program.
The numbers don’t lie. In fact, they point toward the unmatched popularity and success of this innovative personal finance program.
Why is the personal finance program important?
Olney became a charter school in 2011 and has just more than 2,000 students. The racial makeup of the school is 60% Hispanic and 32% black. In 2012, it had a 50% graduation rate, and by 2019, it was on track to have a 70% graduation rate.
The 2018 median household income in Olney’s zip code of 19120 is $43,744 — compared to $60,293 in the United States, according to the Census Bureau. That places Olney in a low-income bracket, with students who have a higher risk for financial illiteracy.
Jim Anderson is the founder of Making College Worth It. After more than 20 years in the IT industry, Anderson ventured into a new direction: college and financial aid planning. He combined his interest and knowledge in personal finance — from a stint as a financial planner in the 90’s — with research to find colleges for his oldest three children. The result: a business that not only addresses the college search process, but the cost of college and ways to reduce that cost. For more than 8 years, Making College Worth It has been helping families find great/affordable college programs that will prepare students for their first job and career.
Brilene Faherty is a former financial advisor and current curriculum director at Money Experience, a financial education company that focuses on personal priorities and quality of life. Faherty brings true passion and experience to her role and has personally volunteered to teach Money Experience courses at Girls Inc. of Lynn, MA and for high school students in her native Quincy, MA. She serves on the Quincy Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, as the treasurer of the South Shore Workforce Investment Board, and on the board of the Quincy Young Professionals.
Danita Harris is an industry disruptor with more than 20 years of experience in business development, sales and marketing, and financial literacy. As managing member of Guice Wealth Management, she is certified in life insurance and annuities to help others with wealth management. Being taught financial literacy at the age of eight, Harris understands the importance of starting financial conversations early. She has been teaching financial literacy to youth in various communities for more than 15 years. Harris’s diverse background helps her understand how to speak to young girls and women from her community.
Clarence McFerren II is a graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, American University, and Cambridge College. He has studied mass communications, dance, speech, theater, arts management, and educational leadership. McFerren launched his career in Washington, D.C. public charter schools, where he began his specialization in arts education, focusing on interdisciplinary and inquiry based learning. It was in these capacities that he cultivated his optimistic leadership style to engage the multiple intelligences of young minds to fearlessly think independently.
Jim Wasserman taught economics and media literacy for more than 20 years. Retired from the classroom, he continues to write on education, economics, media literacy, and financial literacy. He is the author of a three-book series, “Media, Marketing, and Me,” which are teacher’s guides for introducing media literacy and behavioral economics to elementary, middle, and high school students. With his wife and two feline overlords, he also maintains a blog, yourthirdlife.com, about exploring the world during retirement.