Using the Web to Teach Financial Facts of Life

Sites can transform good sense into fun and games

Here's a tactic for teaching your kids financial responsibility: Make their fascination--and facility--with the Internet work for you. Personal-finance Web sites for kids that teach everything from budgeting to managing a portfolio have become plentiful on the Net. Many are so easy to use that any parent or child with a modicum of computer literacy can take advantage of them. By using games, quizzes, and other interactive material, the best sites can hold the attention of a child who might not otherwise be willing to focus on financial topics.

The Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy, geared to youths, offers a good starting point (table). Check out its site to get an overview of how you can proceed with your child's financial education, whether she is 7 or 17. For instance, the site has a section on the "12 principles that every young person should know" about money. Select the ones--for example, "don't borrow what you can't repay"--you think are most relevant to your family and appropriate for your child's age. It also has links to about 60 other financial sites you can explore with your kids.

The site has an "Investing for Kids" link that offers the ThinkQuest Stock Game, which you can play with your 10-year-old but your 15-year-old can probably play alone. The game lets your child create, trade, and monitor an imagined $100,000 stock portfolio. Links to such sources as www.quicken.com can assist players in making their stock picks. Another section offers a "Reality Check" quiz aimed at older teens who are about to leave home.

HAIRY TASK. For a more whimsical approach, go to the site created by Firstar Bank, a subsidiary of Minneapolis-based U.S. Bancorp, for middle- and high-school kids. Enlivened by animated, neon-colored graphics, the site takes viewers on a fantasy trip to the planet of Knab. On the journey, kids make financial decisions, starting with choosing a job--at the oxygen-canning or hair-piece-harvesting factory.

The game challenges them to make choices, such as where to live and what transportation to use, that won't exceed their salaries. As decisions are made, the column on the left-hand side of the screen fills in the numbers showing whether the choices are breaking the budget. Along the way, young learners practice writing a check and become conversant with terms such as mortgage, direct deposit, and rate of return. The site also offers activities and lessons that complement the game and that parents can use to work with their kids. Just go to "Educational Stuff" and click on "Activity Sheets."

Sites with question-and-answer games can help parents determine how much their teens know about money management. At www.themint.org, which is sponsored by Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance and the private, nonprofit National Council on Economic Education, a true-or-false stock market quiz features such statements as "Only rich people invest in the stock market" and "The U.S. government sells most of the stocks on the stock market." It then goes on to provide clear discussions on the topics. Another section, "Where to Spend $1,000," leads to a primer on different types of securities and potential yields. A downside: The graphics are plain.

The National Endowment for Financial Education (www.nefe.org), a Denver-based nonprofit financial-education organization, is set to sponsor a new site for teens. Slated to be up and running soon, the site will feature a section in which a chatty "Madame Moolah" will dispense advice on spending. Teens can also read about youthful role models of responsible financial behavior. For example, a 31-year-old singer and cello player who works as a music librarian describes his education and how his mother inspired him. The site's content, which will change every quarter, also includes games and articles on money matters.

For parents of sixth- to eighth-graders who are looking for a comprehensive curriculum, American Century Investments, a Kansas City (Mo.) financial-services company, has launched www.tipsforkids.com. You can download a 168-page study guide that covers everything from the history of money to investing. But the material was created for the classroom, so it's most appropriate for parents committed to providing a structured study program. Once you get on the site, click on "apply for grants" to get a password and download material.

If you or your teen wants something more practical than conceptual, check out the site sponsored by the Canadian Bankers Assn. It can guide your teen on how to set up a budget to meet a financial goal, whether it's one, three, or eight years away. The site focuses heavily on banking terms, such as the different types of accounts, and on how the banking system works. Be aware that some references relate to the Canadian banking and currency system, not that of the U.S.

For a handy savings calculator, go to the Washington-based American Savings Education Council (www.asec.org). It can help your child plot a savings strategy if he wants to buy a computer game or finance a trip to Disneyland.

FIRST SWIM. If your focus is teaching your teen about investing, you have several sites to choose from. The Madison Heights (Mich.)-based National Association of Investors (www.better-investing.com), which sponsors investment clubs, offers information on youth memberships and how to start a club. Boston-based Liberty Mutual Financial boasts colorful animated graphics, a "library" on financial issues, and interactive games that explain basic terms such as risk, bull, and bear. The site also features a question-and-answer section on money issues for parents and kids. While the graphics are attractive, the text is presented in a small window, so it can be hard to read.

Finally, if you want a low-cost way to encourage your child to invest, go to sharebuilder.com, where you can purchase even fractional shares of stocks by dollar amounts, for $3 per transaction or $8 a month. A helpful frequently-asked-question section provides guidance on how to manage your account.

Instilling financial responsibility in your kids can be difficult when you're competing with images of $100 tennis shoes, $150 designer blue jeans, and $300 video-game players. The Net offers an attractive medium to get your message across.

By Ellen Hoffman

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