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YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — A 32-car pileup might be a good metaphor to describe many a person’s financial past.

Financial literacy, like reading, is an acquired skill that should be taught at an early age. Unfortunately, it remains a critical missing piece from many children’s education.

But it doesn’t have to be, one expert says.

“It’s unrealistic to expect that kids will just ‘figure out’ money for themselves,” said Laura Levine, executive director of the Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes.

According to its Web site, Jump$tart found that the average high school graduate lacks basic skills in personal finance management, and most have no insight into the basic survival principles involved with earning, spending, saving and investing.

“We don’t hand them the keys to the car and say, ‘See if you can figure out how to drive it.’” Levine said. “Money [management] is a skill and you can certainly teach yourself some of it, but financial education helps to make sure that kids learn well and learn right.”

According to Levine, teaching young people how to manage their personal finances should go along with teaching the importance of values and a good work ethic.

“We’re all, naturally, pretty good spenders. And the advertising world makes sure that we keep those skills honed,” Levine said. “I think that in general, most people, including most kids, need to focus on not spending … the importance of saving.”

Levine’s goal, and that of Jump$tart, is to teach children how to manage their money before they make any serious mistakes and have to live with the consequences.

Progress is being made, Levine said, explaining that many parents are catching on.

“I purchased savings bonds for my daughter when she was born,” said Navy parent Martha Mulvany. “Now, I’ve enrolled her in some finance classes for children, so she will understand why I want her to invest the money from her bonds into an individual retirement account.”

And children will catch on, Mulvany believes.

“Children are so much more in tuned with mutual funds and CDs than we were as children — and I don’t mean music CDs,” she said. “So many children could easily be millionaires when they grow older if they would start investing in a mutual fund now.”

For many parents, the reason for making financial literacy a priority isn’t because their children have done anything wrong, but rather because they don’t want their children to have to learn about money the hard way — by making mistakes.

Lydia Woodbury says it is important that her children learn smart spending and savings habits before they go out into the world and have to do it for real.

“If they learn what to do now, it will carry over into adulthood,” Woodbury said. “I wish someone had taken the time to teach me about finances when I was younger. I could have accomplished so much more.”

Talks for teens

The following financial workshops for teens are offered at Yokosuka’s Fleet Family Service Center:

Savings and Investment — learn about stocks, bonds, mutual funds, compound interest and the value of money over time. Thursday, 3 p.m.Credit Management — how to build credit, maintain it and the dangers of abusing it. April 19, 3 p.m.Car Buying in the States — learn about the lingo, how to negotiate, how to research and all about car insurance. April 26, 3 p.m.To register your teen, call 243-3372.

Tips for teaching

Here are some tips from financial experts at Yokosuka’s Navy Fleet and Family Service Center:

Save 10 percent of each paycheck/allowance. Teach your children that they’ll have money for a rainy day.

Establish a spending plan, and stick to it. Know where your money is coming from and where it is going.

Children need to learn about how consumer credit companies entice people to use plastic to live beyond their means.

Get the children involved in the family’s spending plan. Let them catch you in the act of paying bills. You can show your children an online budgeting system that turns your checking account into a visual playground at www.debtproofliving.mvelopes.com. It is fun, and it will help your kids gain a understanding of what it means to “budget” your income.

If a child overspends his allowance, do not give him/her anymore. Teach your children to live within their means.

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