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Monday, Jun 18, 2018
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Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: Getting past Dad's advice on personal finance

It's almost never a good idea when the Legislature starts noodling with the requirements for a high school diploma — and by “noodling with” I mean “adding to” — as if Tallahassee owns some sort of blessed insight regarding what Floridians must know to thrive beyond their 18th year.

But in the case of the bill mandating a personal finance course worth a half-credit, I'm willing — however reluctantly — to make an exception.

Much of personal finance falls into the category of “Stuff Our Dads Used to Teach Us.” Make a budget. Keep close track of who and what you owe, but pay yourself first. Balance your checkbook. Don't sign your name to anything you don't understand. It's cheaper to hire a lawyer in the first place than to need a lawyer later on. Avoid long-term loans for things that depreciate. Anything on wheels depreciates. Playing the lottery is not a financial plan. Don't marry for money ... but don't make it an obstacle, either.

Sadly, trends indicate dads have been in short supply for quite a while. Worse, the evidence is not compelling that dads who are on the scene are any more comfortable delivering fatherly financial advice than they are having “the talk” about you-know-what.

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Besides, personal finance — a fancy term for “managing your money” — has grown more complicated than it was when dads who survived the Great Depression and World War II were schooling their baby-boomer children. Still, for all our variable-interest mortgages, deferred-tax retirement plans, exchange-traded equity funds and car-leasing schemes, this 19th-century advice, extolled by Mr. Micawber in “David Copperfield,” endures:

“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen-nineteen-six, result: happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result: misery.”

Helping high school students grasp the best methods for achieving happiness and avoiding misery has earned unsurprising support from the Financial Planning Association of Florida.

“Today, students face more complicated financial choices than any previous generation and need exposure to basic financial skills as they grow into independent young adults,” said Michael Zmistowski, chairman of FPA of Florida, in a news release distributed last week. “We want a robust course of study in personal financial planning that can help ensure that students can make successful, smart money decisions in their own lives.”

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It's hard to argue with that. The devil, as ever, will lurk in the details. The Legislature can mandate the add-on, but, as with any subject, who teaches it and how it's taught will make all the difference.

Holding the majority in both houses, GOP lawmakers may be motivated by the reasonable assumption that a financially literate constituency will be more receptive to conservative arguments on taxes, public spending and government meddling. I mean, you'd like to believe people who'd had a semester of personal finance would be less susceptible to President Obama's pandering on the minimum wage, overtime rules and income inequality.

But suppose the curriculum winds up being taken over by Keynesians who teach that so long as government is there to prime the pump, taxes and interest rates are irrelevant to business success. Don't laugh. That's the summary of my Economics 101 experience in the autumn of 1972. I'm going to pretend this possibility is not why lots of Democrats also are on board.

Still, the alternative is to continue to look the other way while new generations of Floridians flounder from paycheck to paycheck, overdrawn, under water, upside-down, paying usury on their Visa credit cards thinking they'll be delivered from the ruin of their making by a new federal bureaucracy.

It wouldn't be the first time the Legislature had made law based on the notion that doing nothing was worse.

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