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One book's mission to teach personal finance

By Jeffrey Steele

One book's mission to teach personal finance

You can argue ad infinitum whether U.S. public schools do a good job in teaching reading, writing, arithmetic and all the other subjects taught to the tune of a hickory stick. But on one subject you're unlikely to get even a slight debate.

On the question of whether schools do well at helping students understand personal finance, the answer could be the world's most resounding "NO!"

This is what inspired Pittsburgh-based Gene Natali and his co-author Matt Kabala when they wrote their 2012 book, "The Missing Semester."

"We wrote the book because there's a clear need," Natali says. "This is one of the few subjects that impacts 100 percent of Americans. There will be 1.7 million students graduating college in 2013, and 3.2 million graduating high school, with 30 percent of those high school grads going directly to the workforce. Welcome to the real world, because 100 percent of them will have to begin making financial decisions. Yet they're ill prepared."

Introducing students to personal finance

When their schools fail them in term of financial education, students may not be prepared choose wisely on the dozens of financial choices that will be confronting them upon their graduation. Many won't be able to balance a checkbook, tell you why it's wise to start saving early or handle many other rudimentary money tasks.

To further address these problems, Natali and Kabala have begun speaking to high school senior classes and college business schools about their book, then taking up to 90 minutes per audience to field questions.

"As we interact with more and more schools and students that have incorporated the book, we're finding there is tremendous interest in the topic," Natali says. "It's absolutely off the charts."

The big reason the book has been successful is that it is both accessible and actionable, according to Natali. "It's easy to understand, and there are frequent calls to action throughout its pages," he says.

Financial advisers and educators have been among the book's supporters, and Natali says this is because it addresses a need that has long been neglected.

"As our audience has read the book, the response has been, 'Holy Cow! I wish I could have read this when I was younger,'" Natali says.

The broad and bold statement that comes across throughout the book and in Natali's presentations is that if you let your spending dictate your savings, you're putting the cart in front of the horse.

"The earlier [young people] build the good habit of saving money, the more it becomes habit," he says. "The sacrifices are temporary. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, in terms of paying off college debt and starting these good habits."

Inspiring the next generation

Natali and Kabala are both fathers of young children, and were inspired to write their book by thinking of their own kids' educations in money management. But their authorship soon grew into a mission to educate young people in general.

"We wanted to make people curious enough that they will go out on their own and access the information that is very available today on, for instance, the best savings accounts and savings interest rates," Natali says. "We're passionate about the subject, but we know we'll only have success if we can transfer the ownership of these ideas to our readers and target audience."

Natali says today's students get a bad rap as a very entitled generation, and have earned that rap to some degree. But the more closely he works with high school and college-age kids, the more impressed he is by how much they want to learn about personal finance.

"If we can inspire and motivate these young minds, we're going to be blown away by what they accomplish," Natali says.

Jeffrey Steele is a Chicago-based writer who frequently writes on personal finance.

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