Part 1, 2, 3, 4

Students at Greece Athena High School in suburban Rochester who took the CARE program last year meet with Judge Ninfo to discuss how it has influenced their money habits.
Photo by Chris Farrell

Ninfo drives to Greece Athena High School, in a suburb of Rochester, where his wife teaches drama. As he drives past her car in the parking lot, Ninfo brags about the zero-percent financing he got when he bought his vehicle, a Ford Focus.

He heads inside, where the students are rehearsing for the opera Aida. Six of them take a break to sit with the judge in a conference room. Last year they participated in the CARE program.

Ninfo asks if they remember the points he stressed.

  • Avoid using credit cards.
  • Pay cash.
  • Paying bills means paying them in full each month, not just making the minimum payments.
  • Know the difference between wants and needs.
  • Save money and build a cushion to protect yourself.

He asks the students, "Do all of you think that you learned something from the CARE program?"

The students all agree that they did.

A girl begins, "I had no idea how you establish credit or why you would need credit, or how out of hand it could get. So I really took a lot away from it."

Another girl explains, "Well, I've started to save more money. After I have a paycheck from work, instead of spending it instantly I take the majority and put it in the bank so I can save for college expenses."

A boy chimes in, "I mean, everyone always hears, 'Oh yeah, credit card debt.' But as naive children, we don't know necessarily, until that presentation. That really opened my eyes to what debt could do to you and how easy it is to get into debt."

A girl who says she wants to grow up and be an accountant says, "It's kind of scary to see that it could be you. It could be you next year that has to go and see Judge Ninfo in court, saying, 'Hi, how are you? Um, I need to file for bankruptcy,'" which makes them all laugh.

These juniors and seniors are all college bound. Yet none of them say they talked with their parents about money before the judge raised the issue.

The CARE program is new. But surveys on the effectiveness of teaching financial literacy to high school students suggest the most important message they absorb is about the true cost of credit. That message is something many adults still need to learn, too.

RISE President Beth Dixon formed the Memphis Debt Collaborative to reduce bankruptcy in Memphis. Helping public housing residents become financially self-sufficient is a key priority.Photo by Chris Farrell

Beth Dixon is trying to teach it to public housing residents in Memphis. She's trying to keep them from declaring bankruptcy for trivial reasons.

"People were going to file for things like cell phone debt or Memphis Light Gas and Water," says Dixon. "Bills that they were maybe a month or two behind on. They were pulling the trigger on themselves after, say, two or three months of this and then going to a lawyer who might be very willing to file for them."

Dixon runs the RISE Foundation, an anti-poverty initiative. RISE is fighting a culture of bankruptcy that exists in some neighborhoods by teaching low-income families the basics of money management. The organization is part of a nationwide web of nonprofits that encourages families to save. The incentive? For every $1 a family saves another $2 goes into their account. Typically, they're striving to buy a home.

"There's a commonly-held thought that poor people just can't save," says Dixon. "And in fact, the 200 families that we've worked with thus far have been able to save an average of 6 percent of their earnings, and this is on very lean wages."

Continue to part 4

©2018 American Public Media