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Behind Obama's Financial Literacy Message

Kimberly Palmer

The long-awaited financial literacy campaign from the Obama Administration is finally out, and it's already stirring up controversy. The campaign, designed with the help of financial journalist Beth Kobliner and other members of the president's Advisory Council on Financial Capability, highlights 20 money lessons for children, broken into five different age groups. In addition to a printable poster, the campaign features an interactive website for parents and teachers.

According to the campaign, three- to five-year-olds should learn that you need money to buy things, that you earn money by working, that you might need to wait before making purchases, and that wants are not necessarily needs. Six- to 10-year-olds are taught to make spending choices, compare prices, save their money in safe spots, and avoid sharing personal information online. Each lesson comes with helpful ideas for activities: One suggests giving a six-year-old $2 and letting her choose which fruit to buy; another involves setting up a savings account in the child's name.

The lessons progress in their complexity up through the 18-and-over category, which highlights the importance of avoiding credit card debt, taking out health insurance, building an emergency savings fund, and investing wisely by avoiding fees and managing risk. Suggested activities for that age group include getting a free annual credit report, finding a credit card with a low interest rate, and purchasing renter's insurance.

The lessons are based on dozens of research papers and consultations with top experts on what helps children learn about money, and how to get those lessons to stick. It also seems to be striking a chord with parents, who often struggle with how to talk to their children about money. The campaign has a popular Pinterest page, and partners including libraries and elementary schools who are helping to spread the word.

Despite the Money as You Grow campaign's success, or perhaps because of it, the campaign already has detractors. Sam Renick, founder of It's a Habit, a company that promotes financial literacy among children through a character called "Sammy Rabbit," says that the category for three- to five-year-olds doesn't include nearly enough pictures. Words, he says, do not adequately convey messages about financial literacy, especially when many adults might not speak English as their first language.

Renick also says that the first lesson, "You need money to buy things," emphasizes over-consumption, and that it should have instead been phrased, "You need money to save for the things you want."

So far, that criticism sounds pretty weak, especially given the dozens of top researchers who contributed to the Money as You Grow campaign. Kobliner herself is a bestselling author and long-time financial journalist and she drew on the work of well-known experts such as Annamaria Lusardi and Lewis Mandell. The first lesson about buying things is followed quickly by lesson No. 3, which is that you might need to wait before buying things you want.

As for the campaign being in written English, given that most of us communicate that way, it's probably a good choice for the campaign. Children do indeed like pictures, but this campaign is designed to inspire parents and teachers to start conversations and spark financial activities with their children. And it looks like it's on its way to doing so.

What do you think of the Money as You Grow Campaign?

Twitter: @alphaconsumer

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