Teaching a Debt Perspective to 12-Year-Olds

A few weeks ago, my buddy and former HBS classmate, Allan, asked me if I’d like to give a talk about my debt pay-off to the youth group that he leads at his church. I was intrigued and asked who the audience would be. “About a dozen young men, ages 12 to 18.” I became both very interested and very intimidated at the same time. What a great time to talk to them about debt! Young people should hear this message sooner rather than later. But also, what a difficult time to talk to them about debt! Will they listen and pay attention? Can they relate? How the heck do I effectively talk to them about debt without getting too simplistic and general?

Well, I literally just got back from giving the talk, and I couldn’t be happier with how it went. The group of guys was extremely engaged and super sharp. They asked a bunch of really good questions at the end, and it felt like they really understood the very complex message that I was trying to express to them. One of them was even jotting down some notes during my talk and came up to me afterwards to ask for some advice. I think I’ve planted a seed with some of them and I’m glad I  took Allan up on his offer.

What follows are the slides and the script that I loosely followed.

Capture

Teaching a Debt Perspective to 12-Year-Olds

Slide1

This is one of those adult topics. This is one of those “how the world works” topics. When I was growing up, I always wanted to know how the world worked. Allan wants to make sure you’re exposed to this kind of thinking. He wants to make sure you know how the world works. Today you’re going to get one of those rare glimpse into how the world works and we’re  going to talk about a very adult topic: money. 

Slide2

What is perspective? Perspective is like a point of view. When you were a one-year-old, you had the point of view of a one-year-old. You only cared about your naps and eating and having a clean diaper. You weren’t really interested in current events, or international news, or anything like that.  A dog has the point of view of a dog. It only cares about naps and eating and and playing.

Your current perspective as 12 to 18-year-olds is much different than the one you had when you were one. It’s the result of what you experience, read, see on TV, hear about from your parents and teachers. It changes as you go through life.  Today, I want to try to change your perspective and get you to think about certain things a little differently.

Slide3

You already know this is a fact. This is not the secret. How do you know that success is important in our society? One way to answer that question is to ask yourself what you get pressured to do well on. Grades? Sports? Every time your parents ask you how you did on a test, they’re asking if you were successful.Why? Because success is important. Every time your parents cheer for you while you’re playing a sport, they’re cheering for your success because success is important.

Every time your parents ask about your performance, they’re asking about your success, and they’re sending you a signal that success is important.

Slide4

We automatically consider somebody successful if they have a lot of cool stuff.

Slide5

Something that we do automatically is something we do without thinking. A perspective is automatic. We take our experiences and what we hear from our parents and see in advertising and in TV shows and movies and we start making snap/automatic judgments about people.

Slide6

Here’s an advertisement for a very expensive watch. This advertisement helps shape your perspective that somebody is successful if they have a lot of cool stuff.

This advertisement is saying: Eli Manning is a very successful football player and he wears a Citizen watch. Are you successful like Eli? Then you can wear this watch, too. Buy this watch.

Citizen couldn’t care less about whether you are or are not successful enough for this watch. They just want you to want this watch, and they use Eli Manning to make it attractive.

These kinds of advertisements that associate successful people and cool stuff are all over the place. We’re constantly being bombarded by them. Seeing so many of them makes you think that a person is successful if they have cool stuff; it shapes your perspective.

Slide7

Let’s pretend these two guys are twins. We’ll call them Bob and Ted. Who has his life under control? Who has all the answers? Who’s the more successful one? Let’s say they’re both friends of your father and they come to the house from time to time, or you see them at church. Who would you want to get homework help from? Who would you want as a coach? As a teacher?

Slide8

So the perspective that most people have about success is that being in possession of a lot of cool stuff means the owner of those things is successful.

Another common perspective most people have is that a lot of cool stuff will make us happy.

Slide9

Why do we think that? Here’s an advertisement for a gaming system that helps shape your perspective that people are happy if they have a lot of cool stuff.

This advertisement is saying: These kid are happy because they’re playing WiiSports. Do you want to be happy? Then you should buy WiiSports.

These kinds of advertisements that show happy people enjoying something that a company is trying to sell you are all over the place. Seeing so many of them makes you think that cool stuff really will make you happy.

Slide10

Ok, so thanks to what we hear from adults and see on TV and in advertising, we have a very basic perspective: Being successful, which is extremely important, will lead to cool stuff, which will lead to happiness.

Is there anybody who disagrees with the logic of this statement? It sounds pretty reasonable, doesn’t it?

Slide11

Now, let’s say everybody in this room is an adult. You’re 18 years old. You’re not successful yet and, just like everybody else, you want to be happy. You also want to show people that you’re successful—you want to give off that vibe, have that image. But you don’t have any money. What do you do?

Slide12

Well, you can borrow money to buy cool stuff.

Slide13

Is it difficult to borrow money? Not at all. Banks love to lend people money. You don’t have to pay it back quickly. Banks accept repayment over a period of months and even years. There are lots of different ways to borrow money. Has anybody ever borrowed money from their mom or dad? It’s kind of like that… 

Slide14

When I was 26, I wanted to appear successful, and I wanted to be happy. So I went out and bought a house, furniture for the house, a couple of cars, and a motorcycle. Did I look successful?

Slide15

I owed the bank $90k, and that wasn’t even including my mortgage. I created a façade that I was successful. I fooled you. You had this perspective that I was successful, but I owed a ton of money to the bank. I hadn’t actually done anything to deserve those things. I didn’t pay for them with my own money.

Slide16

Which of these guys is successful? Bob, who owes the bank $1M to pay for his stuff? Or Ted, who has his house and car paid off and has $500k in the bank?

Society—advertising, what we see in the movies, on tv, etc.—has trained you to automatically perceive that anybody with cool stuff is successful, when in reality, they might be trapped under a mountain of debt.

Slide17

Here’s a broader question. Why are we defining success so narrowly? Because it’s what we’ve been taught. We’re supposed to get good jobs and be really good at them and accumulate a lot of stuff and be happy.

Do you know what’s interesting? There’s a group called Alcoholics Anonymous designed to help alcoholics recover from their alcohol addiction. There’s a recovery group for almost every single type of addict. But there’s not a recovery group for wealth addicts, people whose every thought is consumed by the need to get richer and richer. Why not? Because our society embraces that kind of addiction. We think it’s a positive thing. So people who are literally suffering from this affliction are being lauded and praised by our society for their gumption rather than being treated for their sickness.

Let’s teach ourselves something different. If we were to put as much work into making a positive difference in this world as we do accumulating cool stuff, what kind of a world do you think we would live in?

How do you perceive success?

Slide18

Which twin do you think is actually happier? Bob, who’s basically living paycheck-to-paycheck to pay for his huge mansion and fancy car? He knows that if he loses his job, he will lose his house and his car. Do you think he sleeps easy at night? Or is Ted the happier one? He could quit his job tomorrow and go on a summer vacation for five years and enjoy his freedom.

Slide19

Here’s a broader question: How do you define happiness? Studies have shown that lottery winners will experience elation when they win the lottery, but they’ll eventually return to their original state. Think back to this past Christmas about a month ago. You were probably super excited to open your presents. Remembered how happy you were to play with or use your gifts for the first time? Where are those gifts now? Are you as happy using them now as you were the first time?

No material thing can ever bring somebody a lifetime of happiness.

How do you perceive happiness?
Slide20

The answer is no. Moving from a house into an apartment was awesome. For a month. Then I got used to it. Driving that convertible was awesome for a couple of weeks, then I got used to it. Same goes for the bike. I bought these things thinking they would make me a happier person, and they did temporarily, but never permanently.
Slide21

The truth is that money doesn’t really buy happiness. And borrowing money to buy things for happiness…?

Slide22

That will make you absolutely miserable. Owing money to the bank truly is a prison sentence. You don’t have as many options when you owe money to the bank. If you don’t pay the bank the money you owe it, they will take away your stuff. And when they run out of stuff to take, they’ll take most of your paycheck and give you whatever’s left over.

I realized I had limited options when I owed the bank  $90,000. I felt trapped. I had this tremendous IOU. It felt like I had limited options. If I lost my job, I would be in big trouble until I found another one. I was living to work, but I wanted to be working to live.

Slide23

So I had this epiphany, this breakthrough. My perspectives on success and happiness changed. I decided I didn’t care if people thought I was successful or not. I decided I wouldn’t expect cool stuff to make me happy. I sold off the extra car and the motorcycle. I shared my house. I stopped spending money on stuff for seven straight months. I decided to create my own happiness.

Slide24

A Level 1 perspective is extremely basic.



Slide25

A Level 2 perspective is slightly more advanced in that it acknowledges that actual real success is necessary to owning stuff free and clear, without any burdensome debt.

Slide26

A Level 3 perspective is even more advanced because it shows that hard work is a critical ingredient for success which will lead to cool stuff.

Slide27

A Level 4 perspective goes one step further and shows that owning cool stuff doesn’t lead to happiness. We’re responsible for our own happiness.

Slide28

A Level 5 perspective is the most advanced perspective. Hard work leads to success, but not necessarily financial or career success, but success that you define on your own terms. It also doesn’t advocate for “cool stuff,” but normal stuff because cool stuff shouldn’t be the end game, the motivator.

The five rules of a level 5 perspective are:

  1. Love yourself. Don’t measure your self-worth based on what you own.
  2. Create your own happiness. Don’t expect stuff to make you happy.
  3. Say no to IOUs. Live within your means. Don’t borrow money to buy cool stuff.
  4. Be free. Save money for an emergency fund and retirement.
  5. Have an impact. Define success on your own terms.

Slide29

Jose Mujica is a level 5 leader. This is a man who could have a mansion and 42 servants. Instead he has a small house and a dog. He doesn’t care if he looks unsuccessful in the eyes of society. He knows that the mansion and servants won’t make him happy.

Most people we know probably don’t look up to Jose.

Is there anybody who doesn’t think Jose looks happy? I actually think he looks very  content, which is even better than happy. 

Slide30

I’ve shared my perspective with people on my blog. Here are some emails I’ve received from visitors that I thought you might find interesting.

__

Edit (2/10/14): I found this really great article last week that suggests ways for parents to express encouragement and support for their kids’ endeavors without making it all about performance and success.

49 Comments

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49 responses to “Teaching a Debt Perspective to 12-Year-Olds

  1. WOW, wow, wow. This is awesome. It is so well put together and broken down nicely for teenagers. I currently teach high school and my most of my kiddos have no clue about money. I wish that all high schoolers could get a personal finance class and an intro to student loans (with a real explanation of their ramifications on their future) before graduating. Heck, even college students should have that opportunity (I had a very small clue about money until the end of graduate school) because not everyone has someone to pass on financial gems of wisdom,

    So encouraged by reading this Joe, glad you had the chance to share it!

  2. Linda Morenus

    I love this! Benjamin may be slightly young for it but not by much.

    Linda

  3. jennifer

    Great talk, thanks for sharing with them – and us!

  4. TS

    Absolutely amazing article. I plan to share this broadly. The audience in mind may have been 12 year olds, but there are a lot of adults who missed these concepts as well (myself included!). I’m working down my $180k of student debt as we speak and plan to have it all paid off by end of 2016 (started in January) using methods from this blog. Your journey inspired me to start my own, thank you!

  5. You did a great job of putting the usually dry finance advice into an entertaining and relatable presentation for the young kids, or anyone else for that matter. This is the perspective that’s totally absent in our school and college education. There are powerful market forces that don’t want kids to see the world in this light. Good on you for spreading the message!

  6. Wow. What a great breakdown to find a different way to think about happiness and money. Your message is clear and the structure of your speech is well thought out. I will also be sharing this!

  7. Pingback: Link: Teaching a Different Way of Looking at Happiness & Money | Mintly: Our Journey Through Debt

  8. Get out of prison and be happy! Great message to young people. Awesome job!

  9. NoTrustFund

    This is great- I’d love to hear what the kids had to say after the talk if you are up for a follow-up post. Thanks for sharing!

  10. yosnowden

    That’s really cool.

  11. What an excellent post. I’m definitely going to link to this!!!

  12. Awesome presentation. The topic of debt, money, saving and investing really needs to become a bigger piece of the standard school curriculum right from the kindergarten.

  13. This is so great! What a wonderful breakdown. I will shamelessly share it on my site and with friends and family. Thank you!

    Btw, I followed you throughout your repayment and you definitely helped keep me on track. I paid off my loans this past December!

  14. Pingback: Teaching a Debt Perspective to 12-Year-Olds | One Man's Mission to Get Rid of 45159.35 of Debt

  15. Lisa

    Just wanted to say I love this and your blog and your general perspective :) Keep up the posts!! I’m surrounded by friends who just LOVE buying stuff — it is such a pervasive mentality today, and it’s refreshing to see you take the time to spreading the opposite message.

  16. Pingback: Teaching a Debt Perspective to 12-Year-Olds | The Gator Narrator

  17. You’re such an inspiration! My circumstances are way different than yours, but hearing your story and reading your blog has been really encouraging and puts things into … perspective!

  18. Erica

    Awesome message to the kids!! This is a wonderful presentation to gets at the root of the debt issue – in a very friendly and approachable way for kids to understand! the use of twins and different financial situation is genius! keep it up :)

  19. This is awesome. I love how you break everything down and progress point by point. I wish there was something like this to help others who have already grown old and are stuck in their Level 1 ways.

  20. Pingback: Teaching youth in America about debt in a different perspective.

  21. Love it!

    Thanks for sharing :-)

  22. Jenn R.

    I am so grateful to have stumbled upon this article. Not only is it helpful to me, but I look forward to sharing this with my boys. Thank you so much for taking the time to share this important life lesson.

  23. I, like Margaret Mead, measure success in terms of contributions one makes on his or her fellow human beings.

  24. CL

    Your presentation is the bomb! How about putting your slides on Slideshare or making a short, narrated Youtube version? Your presentation is the secret to life, the universe, and everything – laid out in a rational way that can be understood by a 12-year-old person. I love it. I got here via Jacob over at ERE.

  25. David Lai

    Well said… :)
    Change our perspective, very important…

  26. Great presentation :)! I’d also like to add that I recently wrote a post on Scholarships (and how breaking it caused me a debt. I’d have a debt either way but the Scholarship compounded a lot to it) here: http://t.yc.sg/post/85205465301/scholarships-or-not. I cleared about 47K USD in about a year, still about 16K USD to go and I’m confident go clearing it comfortably over the next 10 months. I wished I had stumbled across your blog earlier, might have cleared it even faster.

    Material definitely did not make me happy, I was almost sucked into it before, thank goodness I got out of it!

    +1 for freedom :)!

  27. Pingback: Debt is a prison term!! | SgVirtueThrift

  28. lily lam

    Great! what a soul searching article! I appreciate n
    eagerly share with my friends.

  29. Rachel

    Really good stuff! You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free!! Thank you!

    Rachel

  30. Very nice post. Thanks for writing this up and sharing. While always thinking of people in the past didn’t depends on money to survive, we’ve become the slave of money.

    Be a person of value, and that’s not based on money, but the contribution towards society, and to people around.

  31. Pingback: Success, Happiness, Cool Stuff | That day in my life

  32. Pingback: How I wish someone taught me this when I am young - www.hardwarezone.com.sg

  33. Thank you for sharing this post! Will definitely share this with my kids as well!

  34. This is awesome! Very nice article. tq

  35. Reblogged this on Open Your Mind and commented:
    Nice article.. Feeling great after read this!

  36. Thanks for sharing this from a different perspective. The meaning that we link to success needs to be taught to kids correctly from young.

  37. S. Mui

    As someone in their late 20s, this article couldn’t have come at a greater time for me- especially when my generation is very much hooked onto material and outward appearances of success. Thank you for sharing your insights, and it’s definitely a piece of advice I will take to heart!

  38. usahawanbumiputera

    Hi, I’m Abdul Rahman,

    This is a very good article. It’s kinda opened up my mind in one way as well as making it easier for me to teach kids about debt.

    is it possible for me to translate this article into my native language (Malay language) and link back to this article?

  39. Pingback: May’s Read List |

  40. I always want to tell people that happiness is a choice. But it seems like most people just don’t like hearing it. Telling someone that they can just choose to be happy with their life can make them quite mad. I think deep down they know this is true though. Best thing to do is to live your life and be a good example to them. Wish everyone could read this article!

  41. Pingback: May’s Read List | Kate Eats Cake

  42. Larry

    Hmmmm… What is happiness? And how do I get it? These are pretty-well universal questions. Your presentation is wonderful for those who live in the modern media-flooded world where advertisements, frankly, shape our minds. I have often considered these same questions, for myself and for my children. Perhaps I am a little “thick” in regards debt and indebtedness. I am indebted to my parents who gave me life. To my country that gives me liberty. And to my God who gives me – everything! But I am also willing to go into “debt” – real honest to goodness debt – in order to accomplish “good” things. To pay my employees during downturns, to buy new equipment that will allow my company to make more “stuff”, to have the time needed to design new products. There are lots of reasons to acquire “debt”. Some bad – some good. I think “happiness” is what I AM. It isn’t something I earn. Or buy. Or even “deserve”. Someone told me once that LIFE is for LIVING. But what is living if we make no impact for GOOD on the world? If we believe that true happiness is all about OUR freedom (from debt, from obligations, from want, from LIFE itself) then we can become SMALL and SELF-CENTRED. Our focus can become on ME and MY DEBTS while we forget what we are already indebted to. I say, learn to use DEBT to do GOOD. Be yourself. Find your PURPOSE. And happiness will find you, rather than you finding it.

  43. Pingback: Teaching a Debt Perspective to 12-Year-Olds | No More Harvard Debt | Wholesome Experience

  44. Love the level 5 perspective. The marketing messages that bombard us every day make it harder to adopt this perspective. The fact that we are always running into people who buy into and repeat the level 1 perspective makes it even more difficult.

    Money can’t buy happiness, but debt can make you miserable. That is why I recommend taking extreme care when paying for college not to take on too much student loan debt.

    An excessive amount of college debt imprisons you at the outset of your adult life. It may force you to make short-sighted decisions that give up on your dreams in order to make your student loan payments.

  45. Reblogged this on SG Hard Truth and commented:
    Excerpt :
    Here’s a broader question. Why are we defining success so narrowly? Because it’s what we’ve been taught. We’re supposed to get good jobs and be really good at them and accumulate a lot of stuff and be happy.

    Do you know what’s interesting? There’s a group called Alcoholics Anonymous designed to help alcoholics recover from their alcohol addiction. There’s a recovery group for almost every single type of addict. But there’s not a recovery group for wealth addicts, people whose every thought is consumed by the need to get richer and richer. Why not? Because our society embraces that kind of addiction. We think it’s a positive thing. So people who are literally suffering from this affliction are being lauded and praised by our society for their gumption rather than being treated for their sickness.

    Let’s teach ourselves something different. If we were to put as much work into making a positive difference in this world as we do accumulating cool stuff, what kind of a world do you think we would live in?

    How do you perceive success?
    Excerpt :
    Here’s a broader question: How do you define happiness? Studies have shown that lottery winners will experience elation when they win the lottery, but they’ll eventually return to their original state. Think back to this past Christmas about a month ago. You were probably super excited to open your presents. Remembered how happy you were to play with or use your gifts for the first time? Where are those gifts now? Are you as happy using them now as you were the first time?

    No material thing can ever bring somebody a lifetime of happiness.

    How do you perceive happiness?

  46. As a high school English teacher who fell into the credit-card-for-cool-stuff-in-college trap, I had a financial literacy unit in my class each year. The new standards’ focus on informational text made this an easy sell, and for my kids (who grew up in poverty), it was super important.
    As others have said, you did an excellent job of breaking down some huge concepts into levels that kids can understand. Being able to do that–to teach clearly–is a gift not everyone has.
    Just my two cents :)

  47. Pingback: Weekly Scoop 5 | Reformed and Reforming by the Word of God

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