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How many times have you heard your kids complain that what they’re learning in school has nothing to do with the “real world”? It’s true that a lot of what students are being taught in their elementary, middle school and high school classrooms does not appear to them to have any meaningful applications in their lives. Teachers, however, know better. They know that today’s lessons pay off in an infinite number of practical ways later in life. There’s no subject where that’s truer than financial literacy. It’s crucial – for individuals and the larger community – that students and young adults develop a solid foundation of personal finance knowledge, skills and habits in order to thrive. Practicing good money habits means the difference between long-term financial security and serious financial straits.

Financial literacy education is the responsibility of everyone, but most particularly parents and teachers. This guide focuses primarily on teaching financial literacy in elementary, middle and high schools. However, the concepts discussed below – and many of the resources listed – are also helpful for parents and others interested in promoting sound personal finance practices by kids and teens alike. Below you’ll find our suggestions for what concepts should be taught to kids from pre-k through grade 12, and the best times to introduce those concepts. You’ll also find an extensive list of some of the best resources – books, lesson plans, activities, videos, games and more – to supplement financial literacy education in the classroom. Finally, we’ve included an interview with expert Linda Phillips, author of The Zela Wela Way Kids books and other financial responsibility products for kids, and founder of The Wela Way financial life skills website.

Financial Responsibility for Elementary, Middle School and High School Students

When it comes to teaching students about financial responsibility – or practically anything else, come to think of it – timing is everything. Here are a few ideas and suggestions on what to teach children about personal finance, and when to do it.

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Pre-K and Elementary School

At this age, of course, kids feel practically no real consequences from poor saving and spending habits. They are little kids, after all. Nevertheless, children begin to form an understanding of basic money concepts by the age of three and have their money habits mostly set by age seven. Which means that it’s a good idea to start youngsters out on the path to financial literacy sooner rather than later.

A great place to start is by using coins in teaching toddlers how to count. They don’t necessarily have to understand the values of the specific coins. That can wait until ages three to six, which is also a good time to introduce the concept of immediate versus delayed gratification. When they reach the ages of six to 11, it’s time to introduce kids to some of the basic practical effects of money (earning and saving) through allowances and by earning money for chores or small jobs around the neighborhood. In the classroom, teachers can set up their own simulated classroom economies where students earn, save, invest and spend “class cash,” among other fun and educational activities.

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Middle School

If it hasn’t happened already, students in middle school should be well on their way to having a solid foundation in the basics of financial responsibility through earning money by taking on more chores around the house (mowing the yard, babysitting, etc.), helping out in a family business, and maybe even starting a small business of their own. Middle school is also the time for teachers to introduce more advanced financial literacy topics into the classroom, such as budgeting, investing, taxes, career planning, entrepreneurship, and the psychological and emotional relationships people have with their money.

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High School

The advanced topics introduced in middle school are the same ones to reinforce and delve into deeper in high school. Practical, action-based lessons focused on real-life personal finance situations are the way to go. Examples include purchasing a home or vehicle, filing income tax forms, money issues with roommates, paying for college, finding and using credit cards responsibly, purchasing insurance, investing in stocks, and retirement and estate planning.

Classroom Resources for Teaching Financial Literacy: Lesson Plans, Publications, Worksheets, Videos, Interactive Tools, Games and More

The selection of quality classroom resource materials available for teaching financial literacy is almost endless, with most offered completely free-of-charge. Below is a list of some of the best and most popular of those resources currently offered.

Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy

The Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt nonprofit organization consisting of a coalition of over 100 federal governmental agencies and national partners, along with independent affiliated organizations in all 50 states plus the District of Columbia. Jump$tart’s purpose is to support the efforts of its partners in fostering cooperation and collaboration with others in the financial literacy community with the goal of preparing the nation’s youth for “lifelong financial success.” Jump$tart offers a number of useful resources in furtherance of that purpose, including:

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Jump$tart Clearinghouse

The Jump$tart Clearinghouse offers an extremely useful comprehensive search engine for locating financial literacy resources of every kind, both free and fee-based. Users have the option of filtering their search results according to grade level, resource type, price and Jump$tart standards. Those companies and organizations with educational resources they wish to share may register as Clearinghouse providers and submit their resources for inclusion on the site.

Jump$tart Financial Foundation for Educators (J$FFE)

The J$FFE is a model program designed to standardize teacher training in personal finance. Qualifying organizations can apply for a free, limited license to use the model to conduct professional development training programs in their local areas. The model is customizable and suitable for teachers of any grade level for incorporating financial education into their curriculum, regardless of class subject.

National Standards in K-12 Personal Finance Education

Developed by Jump$tart and endorsed by the NEA, the National Standards in K-12 Personal Finance Education lays out the various financial literacy competencies students should acquire from their kindergarten through high school years. The standards are intended to guide classroom education on financial literacy. They may also be employed in the home as well as post-secondary and adult education, and for professional development for teachers, counselors and others. Competency benchmarks are provided for kindergarten, 4th grade, 8th grade and 12th grade in six major categories: Credit and Debt, Employment and Income, Financial Decision Making, Investment, Risk Management and Insurance, and Spending and Saving.

MyMoney.gov: Resources for Teachers and Educators

MyMoney.gov is a federal government website that is part of the Federal Financial Literacy and Education Commission whose goal is to “strengthen financial capability and increase access to financial services for all Americans.” MyMoney.gov’s Resources for Teachers and Educators webpage offers information and links to a variety of guides, curricula and other related federal agencies to help educators teach financial capability concepts to their students. Among the resources that can be accessed are:

Federalreserveeducation.org

Federalreserveeducation

A service of the U.S. Federal Reserve, Federalreserveeducation.org allows users to access to an extensive selection of guides, publications, curricula, and other related materials via search engine. Resources can be accessed by specific grade levels.

Investor.gov: Resources for Classrooms

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U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission site offering access to its introductory guide, Saving and Investing for Students, as well as additional saving and investing materials, games, tools and more.

FDIC.gov: Teacher Online Resource Center

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Operated by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Teacher Online Resource Center website is the starting point for accessing several FDIC education-related resources, including videos, links to a wide range of additional educator resources. Featured are the Money Smart for Young People programs, with four free downloadable grade level-based (pre-k to 2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12) curricula. Of special note is this Money Smart Student Coloring/Activity Book for pre-k through grade 2 kids which can be downloaded free of charge.

IRS.gov: Understanding Taxes for Teachers

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This Internal Revenue Service website offers 38 lesson plans, along with downloadable supplemental materials for teaching the “hows and whys” of taxes. Students can complete lessons either by way of downloaded classroom activities, worksheets and assessments, or online via interactive activities and simulations.

Additional Resources

  • Banzai Online Financial Literacy Program - Grades 3-12
    • Banzai!

      Banzai is a comprehensive online, interactive financial literacy program made available to schools and teachers free-of-charge. With Banzai, students operate in a virtual world in which they must make decisions on an array of “real-world” personal finance issues and events like paying taxes, using credit, purchasing a home and planning for retirement. Banzai is available on three levels: Banzai Junior for elementary schools; Banzai Teen for middle and high schools; and Banzai Plus, an advanced version of the program that offers more complex financial problems for high school students.

  • The Basics of Saving and Investing: Investor Education 2020 - Grades 9-12
    • investing

      This investor education and protection teaching guide is designed for use in a number of learning environments, including high school classrooms. The guide consists of four units (Getting Started, Introduction to Financial Markets, Making a Financial/Investment Plan, and Investment Fraud) and is presented in a free, downloadable format designed to be printed and housed in a one-inch presentation binder. An accompanying downloadable Basics Train the Trainer PowerPoint presentation is available for teachers interested in sharing strategies with like-minded educators. This program is provided by the Investor Protection Trust, a nonprofit organization dedicated to investor education.

  • Council for Economic Education: K-12 Resources - K-12
    • economic-education

      The goal of the nonprofit Council for Economic Education (CEE) is to teach economics and personal finance to “every child in every district and school” by providing curriculum tools and support through in-person professional development programs and CEE’s online educator gateway, EconEdLink. On the EconEdLink website, teachers can access lessons, manuals, videos and other resources, all searchable by grade level. The CEE also offers both live and recorded professional development webinars geared toward showing teachers how to make financial literacy a fun learning experience for their students.

  • Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia: Lesson Plans for Teachers - K-12
    • Federal-bank

      The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia publishes dozens of lessons, exhibits and other resources that can be downloaded from this website. All resources are free of charge. The bank also occasionally offers both online and in-person professional development training programs geared toward providing K-12 teachers with the skills needed to better teach their students about economics and personal finance. Programs are typically one day, three evening, or weeklong in duration, and teachers may be able to receive professional development credit for programs attended. More information, including upcoming scheduled events, can be found on the bank’s Teacher Training Programs webpage.

      Additional teaching materials are available on the bank’s Resources for Education webpage including: The Federal Reserve and You, a seven-part video series explaining the functions and purposes of the Federal Reserve System and providing an overview of banking, money and the history of central banking in the United States; Keys to Financial Success, a complete course plan (51 lessons) that teaches personal finance to high school students; and Symbols of American Money, a colorful 16-page downloadable booklet describing the symbols and images that have appeared on U.S. currency throughout the nation’s history.

  • Finance Glossary - K-12
    • Finance_Glossary

      Comprehensive and useful glossary of over 700 finance-related terms and definitions.

  • Financial Literacy for Kids - Pre-K through Grade 2
    • Incharge

      Four free downloadable lessons (teacher guides and student activity handouts) that introduce children aged four though seven to early financial literacy concepts. Sponsored by InCharge Debt Solutions, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit credit counseling organization.

  • Hands on Banking: Courses and Lesson Plans - Kids, teens and young adults
    • hands_banking

      Hands on Banking offers dozens of free interactive video lessons covering the entire range of financial literacy topics. Lessons are available in both English and Spanish for kids, teens, young adults, adults, seniors and others. All lessons are presented in both flash and mobile formats. Sponsored by Wells Fargo Bank.

  • Money as You Learn - K-12
    • Money

      Money as You Learn offers educator tools designed to integrate personal finance education into the teaching of the Common Core State Standards in mathematics. Similar resources for Common Core Standards in the English language arts will be available in the future. The Federal Government’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau sponsors a companion website, Money as You Grow that offers similar financial literacy resources directly to parents.

  • MoneySKILL - Grades 7-12
    • Money_skill

      MoneySKILL is a free, online comprehensive personal finance course designed to replace or supplement current courses currently taught in middle and high school classrooms. The course consists of 37 learning modules covering an array of topics such as budgeting, income, saving, investing, credit, renting vs. owning, vehicle financing and more. Features include pre- and post-tests, reality check simulations and supplemental video resources. The program is also available in a mobile-friendly, interactive format. Program content aligns with both national and state education standards. Middle school, high school and Spanish language versions are available. Brought to you by the American Financial Services Association Education Foundation, a nonprofit affiliate of the American Financial Services Association, a trade group for the U.S. consumer credit industry.

  • My Classroom Economy - K-12
    • classroom_economy

      My Clnomy is a fun, interactive, experiential program that allows teachers to enable their students to learn the critical behaviors needed to become financially responsible later in life. Students earn and spend money in their classroom’s simulated micro-economy. Simple activities like students paying rent for their desks are introduced first. Additional financial concepts are added as students advance to higher grade levels.

      All program materials are available free of charge and can be accessed on the My Classroom Economy website. Alternatively, materials can be ordered and mailed to schools lacking the resources to print and copy them from the website. My Classroom Economy was developed and is sponsored by investment management firm The Vanguard Group.

  • NEFE High School Financial Planning Program - Grades 9-12
    • Hspp

      The National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE) is a private 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization committed to empowering “financial decision making for individuals and families through every stage of life.” As part of that commitment, NEFE offers a wide range of financial information and education resources including the High School Financial Planning Program (HSFPP). The HSFPP is a free, comprehensive curriculum for teaching basic personal finance to teens aged 13 to 19. The program is intended for in-person teaching use in classrooms and workshops as well as one-on-one with individual students. The HSFPP curriculum is aligned with the Jump$tart national academic standards (see above) as well as standards developed by several other national organizations.

      In addition to the high school specific HSFPP, the NEFE offers several other resources that teachers may find helpful in developing a financial literacy curriculum for their classrooms such as CashCourse, a free online program designed for college and university students, and Financial Workshop Kits that provide access to workshops, tools and other resources designed to deliver financial education to under-served audiences.

  • Next Gen Personal Finance - Grades 7-12
    • highschool

      Next Gen Personal Finance(NGPF) is a private 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that connects educators with a wide range of free-of-charge financial literacy professional development materials, advocacy tools and other related resources. NGPF’s foundational offering is its comprehensive personal finance curriculum for high school students. The curriculum includes four major options: the 18-week Semester Course, consisting of 90 class periods (45 minutes each) along with diagnostic and summative assessments, comprehensive questions and unit tests; the 8-Week Course, consisting of 40 class periods, and including one diagnostic exam and one final exam; the 18-Hour Workshop, with three 90-minute sessions presented across four units; and the 8-Hour Workshop, a personal finance “crash course” consisting of hour-long blocks with lessons lasting either one or two hours. The number of topics covered varies by option, but all include units on types of credit, managing credit, taxes, budgeting and investing.

      In addition to its curriculum for high school students, Next Gen offers a program aimed at middle-school students with inquiries, teacher notes and comprehension questions as well as supplemental activities, and interactive, video, infographic and article libraries.

  • Practical Money Skills - Pre-K throught Grade 12
    • money_skill

      Practical Money Skills is a free financial literacy program created and offered by Visa, Inc. The core of the program is its comprehensive set of lesson plans consisting of teacher guides and student activity written materials. Plans are grouped for pre-k through grade 2 (four lessons), grades 3-6 (four lessons), grades 7-8 (14 lessons) and grades 9-12 (22 lessons). Lesson plans for college and special needs students – which include power point presentations along with written materials – are also available. Teachers and students can additionally access a variety of age-appropriate finance-related interactive games.

  • ReadWriteThink - K-5
  • Scholastic Adventures in Math: Financial Literacy Lessons - K-8
    • scholastic

      Created by Scholastic and sponsored by Regions Next Step for Students, these free-of-charge printable lesson plans (three for kindergarten to grade 2, five for grades 3 to 5, two for grades 6 to 8) cover a variety of financial literacy topics such as money basics, money planning, smart saving and more.

  • The Stock Market Game - Grades 4-12
    • sm_game

      Sponsored by the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association’s SIFMA Foundation, The Stock Market Game is a curriculum-based online simulation program in which student teams learn about investing, long-term saving and the global marketplace through managing a hypothetical brokerage account. Related grade-level curriculum and professional development guides, lesson plans and newsletters are provided to teachers to incorporate the game into their core mathematics, economics, business, social studies and language arts programs.

      The SIFMA Foundation sponsors two student contests associated with The Stock Market Game. InvestWrite is an essay contest designed to build on the knowledge gained through participation in the game, as well as to hone critical thinking skills. Separate competitions are available for grades 4-5, 6-8 and 9-12. Co-sponsored by the Charles Schwab Foundation, the annual Capitol Hill Challenge is a national financial education competition that matches Members of Congress with middle school and high school students, teachers and schools competing in The Stock Market Game. The top 10 CHC teams win trips to Washington D.C. to be recognized at an awards reception on Capitol Hill.

  • TD Bank: Wow! Zone for Educators - K-12
    • tdbank

      The Wow! Zone is TD Bank’s comprehensive financial literacy program that offers teachers a wide variety of educational materials designed to provide teens and children with practical knowledge and skills about money, saving, investing and banking. Free, downloadable materials (lesson plans, cue cards, flash cards, worksheets, games and more) are educational and interactive, and designed to meet the standards of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). TD Bank also provides trained bank instructors who are available for classroom visits. Each classroom visit concludes with a trip to a local TD Bank location where students can visit the bank’s vault, meet with tellers and more. TD Bank classroom instructor visits are available in a limited number of states and the District of Columbia.

  • Treasury Direct: Money Math Lessons for Life - Grades 7-9
    • td_logo

      Treasury Direct’s Money Math Lessons for Life is a free, downloadable four-lesson curriculum supplement for grade 7-9 math classes that employs real-life examples in personal finance. Lesson topics are: The Secret to Becoming a Millionaire, Wallpaper Woes, Math and Taxes: A Pair to Count On and Spreading the Budget. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of the Treasury Bureau of Fiscal Service and developed by the Center for Entrepreneurship and Economic Education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

  • Warren Buffett’s Secret Millionaire’s Club Learn & Earn - Grades 1-8
    • wbs_millionaire

      This program of extensive materials designed to teach financial literacy and entrepreneurship was created to extend the lessons taught in the Warren Buffett’s Secret Millionaires Club television specials and webisodes. Teachers (and others) have access to a vast array of free-of-charge learning materials including digital and downloadable comic books, webisode-related interactive activities (many of which are aligned with Common Core mathematics and Jump$tart standards) and more. Sponsored by the Fairholme Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization created and supported by Fairholme Capital Management.

  • Wise Pockets World Schoolhouse - Grades 3-6
    • wise_pockets

      The Wise Pockets World Schoolhouse offers a set of 13 free, downloadable and printable comprehensive lesson plans designed to teach personal finance concepts to students in grades 3 through 6. Created by the Center for Entrepreneurship and Economic Education and sponsored by Money Management International, a network of credit counseling and education nonprofits.

Interview with Expert Linda Phillips

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Linda Phillips is the founder of The Wela Way, a website featuring financial life skills information, advice and other resources for kids, teens, parents and financial professionals. The Wela Way resources have been featured on ABC News, CBC News, Yahoo Finance, the Chicago Tribune, CNN and other media outlets. Linda holds an Honours Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology and a Masters of Business Administration, and previously worked in the sports medicine and international corporate medical fields for over twenty-five years.

How well are we doing at preparing our kids for the real world in terms of financial responsibility and literacy?

If we look at the current national financial well-being of our young adults, it’s nothing short of a disaster. We are not doing well at all at preparing our youth for adult life and managing the number one resource they will deal with every day. When you consider measurements such as student loan debt, consumer debt, spending habits and basic, potentially damaging financial (and health) habits - like consistently eating out – the statistics paint a dire picture. Additionally, the numerical indicators don’t take into account the enormous effects of the stress and anxiety these financial challenges cause. And those factors impact all of us, both as individuals and our society as a whole.

Young people today are growing up in a world that is entirely different than it was when we adults were children and teens. Therefore, their educations need to address these monumental changes in order for them to learn and implement the skills they require now to achieve mental and physical health, success and happiness in the future.

Is there a particular age or grade level that's best to start teaching kids about financial responsibility?

There has been quite a bit of research done showing that a person’s money wiring and belief systems are firmly in place by the age of seven. Thus, in order to help children learn the basics with open-mindedness and create positive, enabling money beliefs, it would be ideal to start in the pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classrooms. Children today need financial life lessons and hands-on opportunities that provide them with inspiration, hope, personal relevance and a framework to manage their money and dreams successfully. When these elements are combined, their imagination, personal competency and optimism flourish.

Do you have any recommendations for how to start the process?

Start with simple and fun concepts such as the learning the difference between needs and wants, the concept of saving, and so forth. This is exactly why I wrote the Zela Wela kids storybooks. I needed a fun way to share key lessons with my children in a simple, entertaining way without lecturing them. The Zela Wela Kids Needs and Wants book is set in a grocery store purposely because it is a real-life situation where kids are enticed by desires such as toys and candy that can often lead to upset. The story gives both the child and the parent or teacher strategies such as the Wish List that helps to effectively deal with the emotional situation.

Any other suggestions?

A very simple and powerful activity that helps kids learn how to manage money and develop their financial numeracy skills is the “GISS” framework. GISS stands for Give, Invest, Save and Spend. GISS teaches the invaluable concept that money has numerous important purposes – that it’s not just for spending. This is fundamental knowledge for building long-term wealth but isn’t commonly taught. Building a “GISS” bank is something that kids are doing at home and in classrooms. This process can then be automated when they open accounts at financial institutions and begin receiving income.

How about as kids grow older?

A key lesson for teens to understand is this: It’s what they do each day from this point forward that creates their financial life. It doesn’t matter what their background is or mistakes they’ve made, it’s what they do from this point forward. Having conscious awareness of the fact that they are responsible for – and actually creating – their financial future based on their financial decisions is fundamental to their path towards financial well-being. Habits such as dividing up their income for different purposes will be the basis of their financial future. These days there are exponentially more financial decisions made in a day than ever before in history. We all have to learn to make those seemingly “small” decisions effectively or our futures will be impacted. There’s no way around it. It can be as simple as saying, “I choose not to buy that, it’s not going to take me closer to my goal.”

Being aware of cash flow is another great example. Many surveys show young adults think they can buy much more with a given salary than is realistic. Often young adults will start living a more expensive lifestyle than they can really afford and begin to go into debt. Eating out is often one of the major expenses causing this problem, but because they don’t know what their cash flow in and out of their bank account is, they can’t figure out why they are constantly getting further behind financially. Creating a spending plan (I prefer this term versus calling it a budget) is a really important success habit for a young person, whether they are saving for a car, school tuition or their first house. It is ideal if they have an inspiring goal first, because that will help motivate them to make a good effort to create the plan with realism and thoughtfulness.

What can schools (and teachers) do to help parents teach their kids about financial responsibility? Are there things that parents and teachers can do in coordination with each other to encourage better financial practices by their children/students?

  1. Make financial life skills education a priority from elementary school through high school. This is a topic you never stop learning about because life stages change, creating the attitude of being a life-long learner is critical.
  2. Share lessons that can be discussed and student activities that encourage self-reflection, decision-making skills, practice, repetition and progressive learning. The concepts don’t have to be complicated. It’s a step-by-step basis of understanding. Children tend to learn through three main methods: visual, auditory and kinesthetic. The more these methods can be used in learning activities, the deeper the learning, and a higher percentage of students will benefit through the home and school integration.
  3. The lessons and activities at school can be encouraged by the teacher to be discussed and continued at home. These lessons need to occur in both places because children can generally only get experience with real money and spending decisions at home or when making buying decisions with family members. The school offers fantastic opportunities for developing discussions about perspective such as why to purchase one item over another or even at all. Role-playing and pretend spending can also occur at school in numerous games such as a grocery store class. This way the learning is continuous, and often the parents enjoy re-examining their beliefs and perspective on things as well. With the awareness of recycling and the damage of plastics on the environment, for example, many families are reconsidering what they purchase, and this has often been stimulated by the student going home and sharing their knowledge.
  4. Enter into conversations about everyday decisions. For example, the price of gas and why you’re driving by one station to buy it at another. Children are very smart. When my son was about three years old, I had mentioned before we left the house that I needed to buy gas. A while later when we passed a gas station, he asked why we didn’t stop to get gas. Surprised by his question, I explained it was because gas was usually a better price at the one further down the road. When we engage our kids in our thought processes, it allows them to be involved as well.
  5. Keep in mind that young children are not intimidated to learn or ask questions about money. They want to learn and they believe they can. They don’t say, “I’m not smart enough,” or “I’m not good at math so I can’t learn this.” This is something that we as a society need to recognize and respond to effectively because we can utilize their interest to enhance learning and awareness of the fundamental concepts.

Can you tell us a little about the Wela Way?

My books and resources were developed to help my children – and ultimately children all over the world – learn essential life skills based on personal values and provide them with activities that would stimulate the development of great financial and life habits. When I had gone looking to find this type of program, I couldn’t find what I wanted. I also needed this information myself, as I had just gone through several life altering events in a very short time. I knew I had to figure out how to get through these challenges so I could be the mom I wanted to be to my children – healthy and inspired.

The Zela Wela Kids financial storybooks have been successfully piloted with over 1,900 elementary school children by Memorial University and are available in print form and downloadable PDFs that are often used by teachers on SMART Boards. The Steps to Success activity guide for teens and young adults, and parents guides have been successfully reviewed by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) and are used internationally by families, teachers and financial professionals to provide the opportunity for our youth to complete valuable activities that help them begin to develop their financial path.