Getting the Money Right

A woman pointing to a large screen teaching a classroom of teenagers.

dulting” has become a popular word in recent years. Kids graduating from school to join the real world face the inevitable need to “adult.” Though handling utilities and other bills may not be on a kid’s priority list, they’ll soon find out the importance of learning how to handle finances.

While schools offer core classes critical to educational success, learning to function as an adult requires more. Mt. Lebanon School District recognizes how important it is to prepare students for the real world. Because of this, Mt. Lebanon High School offers a personal finance class to the school’s juniors and seniors.

Beth Karambelkar teaches the class, which counts as an elective but can also  satisfy a math course requirement. After teaching this class for a year, Karambelkar is still finding her footing at the high school, but this isn’t her first foray into teaching this subject.

Karambelkar graduated from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, with a degree in engineering and a minor in art. With intensive engineering courses under her belt, she spent her college years entrenched in math. Though she never intended to be a teacher, after a couple of internships, Karambelkar wanted to shift her focus toward the classroom.

Karambelkar taught in private schools in Rhode Island before attending the Teachers College of Columbia University, in New York City, for graduate school. She student-taught at a magnet school, the Bronx High School of Science, and landed a full-time teaching job there after graduation.

Karambelkar moved with her husband to Pittsburgh so he could practice as a physician, and she found work in the Mt. Lebanon School District. She says the similarities between the magnet school and the Mt. Lebanon School District made for an easy transition.

Although the personal finance course is part of the math curriculum, the wide range of subjects appeals to juniors and seniors for many reasons.

Harrison Pittle took the class as a senior last school year. He wanted to take personal finance “in order to gain a better understanding of what financial situations I will experience in the future. Since college is a big concern for me and most other seniors, I wanted to figure out how people can afford paying for college and continue to live comfortably.”

A woman leaning behind two kids showing them something on a laptop computer.
Mt.Lebanon High School teacher Elizabeth Karambelkar (center) chats with students from last year’s personal finance class, Harrison Pittle and Sara Frew.

On the surface, the topic of personal finance may be thought of as plain common sense. But the all-encompassing nature of the class makes it easy to see its importance. Personal finance covers anything you can think about related to finances operating in the adult world, including sections on insurance and investments.

The semester opens with behavioral economics—learning how to spend and save money. Students learn how to develop a five-year plan in preparation for the career field they wish to pursue. Financial aid and college costs round out this unit.

The class then shifts its focus to something all adults can relate to—managing money. Students view pay stubs to dissect how taxes and other deductions melt away from a paycheck. The unit rounds out by discussing savings goals and retirement.

Students learn about mobile payments and technology allowing for real-time financial decisions, but some old-school concepts remain. Karambelkar takes her students through the process of writing paper checks and talks about balancing checkbooks.

She talks to the kids about how to establish credit, how to read a credit report and what events can damage a credit score. Mt. Lebanon senior Sara Frew, who also took the course last school year, learned some unexpected lessons during the credit discussion. “I thought it was really interesting to see how easy it is for you to lower it/have it fluctuate.”

Students move on to thinking about major home purchases, creating budgets and discovering how all of the items acquired will add up to a potentially staggering amount of money. This one delivers a dose of reality to the students. Karambelkar notices that kids are often “shocked at what the bottom line is.”

A teenager making a presentation of a plan to figure out what he needs for his living room.
Mt. Lebanon High School’s personal finance class prepares students for negotiating real-life money challenges.

Every student takes away something different from the class. Pittle walked away prepared for what’s to come. “In class, I didn’t expect to figure out my plans for the near future, but I was pleasantly surprised to do projects that involved finding housing and jobs,” he said. “I even found an apartment in Georgia that I liked so much I visited it in person!”

To tie it all together, Karambelkar has her students create a master budget at the end of the year, incorporating the class lessons to plug information into a final spreadsheet.

Karambelkar’s goal is for her students to be able to make good, effective decisions about their financial future, and to understand how all of the intricate pieces and parts of personal finances work. If they elect to take this class, students will be equipped with a head start on real-world knowledge on how to manage any financial hurdle thrown their way.

The high schoolers see little homework throughout the length of the year. Most lessons occur in the classroom and kids take advantage of the hands-on approach of reviewing the gamut of anything financially related.

“I really liked the unit on looking for a future home and furnishing it,” Frew said. “It was useful and also fun!”

“I think it’s providing students with a skill they need to possess when they leave the care of their parents,” Karambelkar said. “Whether for trade schools, gap years, or whatever they do going into adulthood, the class discusses a lot of what kids need to learn to move out of high school.”