Does Financial Literacy Matter?

NEW YORK (MainStreet) —Three years ago, Bianca Louis and nine other teenage girls were handed $50,000 and told to invest it in the stock market. The money was real, provided by the ING-Girls Inc. Investment Challenge, a program designed to teach girls like Louis, who attends a New York City high school where most students are economically disadvantaged minorities, about investing and personal finance.

This was no purely academic exercise. Louis and her teammates would get to keep two-thirds of any return generated by their investment decisions, made with the help of an adult volunteer, and use it for college.

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“When I found out they were giving us $50,000, I was surprised,” says Louis, who is now 16 and a high school junior. “It felt powerful. It brought on a sense of responsibility and had us all serious.”

The program worked pretty well as an investment vehicle. Louis’s team churned out a $25,000 gain in the three-year project. That was enough for first place in a competition with other teams and roughly $2,000 apiece for the girls’ college funds.

The girls also learned a lot about investing, according to Rhonda Mims, president of the New York-based ING Foundation. “When I’d go over to watch some of the sessions I was impressed how intense they were, but also the language they could use,” Mims says. “It also gave them experiences like ringing the closing bell that these girls wouldn’t have, and also hopefully opened their eyes.”

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While bell-ringing is nice, a more significant question is whether learning about investing and finance changes the girls’ behavior and makes them more effective managers of their personal finances. Louis says it has, a little. “It’s only in the last, like, couple of months,” she says. “But I’ve gotten better at saving my own money.”