Wise Information for K‑12 Employees



K-12 Story: Teaching Financial Literacy in Chicago Public Schools

My course, which I have adapted and honed over the past seven years, is definitely a team effort. I have been very fortunate to have worked with several teams of high-performing teachers to develop the curriculum used for personal finance in Chicago Public Schools. I am also fortunate to be teaching a course that is recognized by both students and parents as concretely valuable. That said, any curriculum — no matter how well developed and inclusive of front-line teachers — needs to be molded to fit what your students need.

Importance of Decision Making

The core enduring understanding I want students to take from my course is the ability to create a well-developed sequence of decisions that, in my classroom language, will “make you more rich, not more poor.” Choices are at the heart of financial literacy and it’s why I begin classes each year with diving into what students already think about money-decisions. In my context, I always find that they already know more than they realize. That said, at the surface, both kids and adults will tell me a key to financial success is making decisions based on “needs not wants.” I think this is baloney. If such advice worked, more than half of Americans wouldn't be in debt. Instead, I teach my students to think deeper and more critically about their financial decisions. Students learn how to perform a cost-benefit analysis, a decision-making technique I call PACED (identify Problem; Brainstorm alternative solutions; identify Criteria by which to judge alternatives; Evaluate the alternatives using the criteria; make Decision). This is similar to a SWOT (acronym for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis, popular in the business world. I even pull out impulse as a way to make a decision and explain that it might be your impulse inside your head that tells you “go to Wendy’s, you need food” when it might be a better economic decisions to eat the leftovers at home. I go on bashing needs versus wants when I explain that both “needs” and “wants” are really demand, as in supply and demand. 

Circular Flow of Economics

Thus far, almost everything I’ve mentioned is my own creation or adaptation to the curriculum I helped created for the district with other teachers. That said, some of the most valuable things are not mine. PACED was taken from the Financial Education Initiative director and so is another essential understanding: the circular flow of economics. The big idea I want students to take away here is that THEY are the ones creating value in society. I find the standard curriculum tools here invaluable. This is a nice time in the course for whatever resume, job interview, or personal branding activities I might want to include.

Frugality and "Meat on the Bone" 

Once I’ve front-loaded decision making which includes having students do an in depth response to what they would do and how the economy would be impacted by a federal increase in income tax, I can get down to the nitty-gritty. Up first is controlling spending a.k.a. what it really means to be frugal. Here I borrow heavily from Ramit Sethi, author of my favorite personal finance text, I Will Teach You To Be Rich. I borrow one key idea story from the book to give my students an in-your-face example of frugality. I buy a tray of chicken wings and let kids devour them. When they are done, we examine their natural propensity for frugality by seeing how much meat is left on their respective chicken bones. A sum of $100 is small price to pay for chicken wings and to hook kids into what bores the heck out of most people: budgeting. 

In my first several years teaching financial literacy I found the budgeting portion of class was too short with the curriculum I had. Everyone gets told to budget, but so few do it. Why? That’s what I want my students to think about. To this end, each of my students gets a tiny notebook to really practice tracking spending. Additionally, I have kids analyze and compare several different philosophies on and approaches toward budgeting. 

Beyond Banks and the Conformity Trap

Next up, one of the most important relationships anyone will ever have: one with a bank. I don't want students to choose a bank the way I did: by walking until you hit the closest one. Instead I would like them to understand how to “beat the banks.” I teach students that banks are filled with educated people who are experts at getting our money and that the biggest most popular banks are best at it. This begs the question, if the vast majority of deposit accounts are held by big fee-charging banks, why are they so bad? This is another chance to bring in theories from behavioral economics. The answer to why so many are in bad banks is often connected to the status quo bias and the conformity trap. These “thought traps” explain why the status-quo choice and popular choice have a default advantage over a different choice, even when the way things are or the popular decision is not the best rationally. I have students do exactly what I did when I ditched my lousy big-name bank: head to bankrate.com or nerdwallet.com. I am always tickled when I start getting calls from parents who after hearing from their children now have another option than the bank that’s been dinging them for an extra ATM or minimum balance fee. Although, I promise if you try to tell your peers that their bank stinks, they will immediately turtle up and give you reasons why its not that bad. Here’s a great time to re-examine confirmation bias. Another thought trap that tricks us into recruiting evidence to support our prior decisions.

Car Buying and Confirmation Bias

This far in the course, students have gained enough knowledge and skills to take on a real-deal performance task. So they "buy" a used car. Students make their own budget with the caveat that the bigger it is, the more detailed their plan has to be. They identify their own criteria to make their decision which presents an opportunity to point out confirmation bias as students will inevitably create criteria called “quality” that they will struggle to explain when pushed. They search Craigslist and dealer sites for cars that fit their budget. They compare what they find to the Kelly Blue Book value, and make a decision. Then I take exactly two minutes teaching how to write a check, and they write a check out for the car that best meets their criteria. I make this last remark about check-writing to point out one of the problems I see with teaching personal finance: many curriculums are stuck in the past and spend too much time on some skill like balancing a checkbook that is obsolete. I would rather show my students mint.com. As far as a performance task goes, the car-buying simulation has to be ubiquitous wherever teachers are teaching personal finance. It’s another tickle when a parent sees their child’s project, decides they did such a great job that they buy the car… but not for the kid, for themselves! Sorry Amauri (yes this is a real story about my student Amauri.)

Debt and Credit 

Next up is the double-edged sword that is debt and credit. I find that my students already understand the world of credit. In this neighborhood, individuals are highly sensitive to credit. In fact, when I show students how to obtain their credit reports online, I have to contact parents ahead of time so that there are no surprise difficult conversations about why young Elijah had his name used for a gas bill two years ago. Unfortunately, I have not found a good solution to the problem of a minor’s stolen identity. I do take my students through calculating interest and this is where our packaged curriculum shines. In addition to car financing, we use nerdwallet.com to research credit cards and their costs. In some years, if there is space, I might re-run the car sim with new cars here, but I’ve left that alone in recent years so that I can get deeper into what’s next: How to stay paid for life!

Stock Market Game

We also play the online version of the Stock Market Game. It’s awesome and popular with students. We get to revisit some key concepts like supply and demand and the circular flow of economics. But my students only get a couple of chances to trade before I hit them with what I think they really need: an understanding of the esoteric, but tremendously powerful wealth building tools like “Roth IRA, “401(k),” “403(b),” “529,” and “ETF.” Sure I have students that really get into trading, but I’m always pleasantly surprised with how many students are content to do what most of us would like to do: identify their own risk profile, pick a couple of good, diversified investment vehicles, and automate their investing.


The last portion of my course focuses on insurance. Here I am in debt to the team members who help write Chicago’s personal finance curriculum. Insurance is not my strong suit. Unlike everything else in the course, it’s not something I’ve done myself. I’m fortunate that other Chicago area personal finance teachers have been able to point me to great simulations for my students that can sort of cap off the course. After all, the students have been progressively identifying decisions that will make them richer "not more poor," and by the end of the course, they feel like they are there. Now they just have to protect it.

Team Effort

I cannot say enough about how awesome it is to have the support I do for teaching personal finance. The curriculum that our district created is a great starting point and contains some super-valuable resources put together by really smart people. I also want to point out that the students themselves have such open minds to the world of finance and can recall examples from their own lives that helps make the curriculum real.

Finally, I’m fortunate to have found the website 403bwise which has tipped me off to a whole group of educators who get excited about the prospect of equipping the next generation with all the tools they need to use their awesome power for good.

Hear Dustin and His Students

Dustin (episode #29) and his students (episode #30) discuss teaching and learning financial literacy on the Teach and Retire Rich podcast

Photo of author

Dustin Voss began teaching in 2007 in Chicago Public Schools. After his first year of teaching at South Shore School of Technology, he was laid off and did a year of substitute teaching. In 2009 he was hired at Fenger Academy High School and has taught civics, personal finance, entrepreneurship, and other social science classes since. He has a masters degree in curriculum and instruction and achieved National Board Certification in 2013. In the summers, Dustin works as a merchant marine Captain, piloting tour boats on Lake Michigan and the Chicago River. He can be reached at: dustinvoss (at) gmail.com