Hi, my name is Sheryl Smolkin. I’m a lawyer and a journalist. Today I’m pleased to be kicking off the Saskatchewan Pension Plan’s new series of interviews with financial experts. My first guest is Ellen Roseman.
Ellen is a journalist and author of five books who has been advocating for the consumer rights of Canadians for the past 35 years. She is a Toronto Star columnist, a fellow blogger on moneyville.ca and she has her own blog “On Your Side.” In January, she was featured on an episode of CBC Marketplaces called “Canada’s Worst Customer Service: Store Edition.”
But Ellen is also passionate about financial literacy and she has been teaching courses in investing and personal finance in the University of Toronto’s Continuing Studies Department since 2004. She also does Financial Basics workshops at Ryerson University. Financial literacy is what we are going to talk about today.
Q. Ellen, why do you think Canadians are so uneasy about their money skills?
A. We don’t learn much about money in school. In the past we used to learn from our parents but today many parents are uneasy about their money management skills and they’re not sure how to bring up their kids with good habits. It has also become a lot more complex and intimidating. For example, look at the number of retirement plans and many of the tax rules are getting more complicated
Q. How important is it to educate our children about money? When should parents start?
A. It’s probably good to start at a young age – like when children are younger, they tend to think that using the ATM is like the lottery and it’s free. You can also go to the grocery store and explain how much different items cost. It’s a delicate balance, but I think it’s a good idea to get your children used to using money and open a bank account at around 6, 7 or 8 years old.
Q. What resources are available to parents to help them educate their children about money?
A. The Canadian Banker’s Association put together a whole network of websites including their own and those of other financial institutions called “There’s something about money.” There are also a lot of financial institutions that have children’s resources on their own websites like Canada Saving’s Bonds. In addition, all the big banks are pretty good about having places where kids can read up and play money games. The approach is almost as entertainment rather than true education, because they learn through being interactive and playing
Q. The Federal Task Force on Financial Literacy recommended over a year ago that provincial and territorial governments put financial literacy into the formal education system. To what extent, if any has progress been made in the implementation of this recommendation?
A. British Columbia led the way even before the Financial Literacy Task Force because they have a compulsory course in Grade 10 and they make great use of the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada’s resource called “The City.” It’s interactive and it lasts for about 18 or 20 hours. Teachers use it in their classes
Manitoba and Ontario decided rather than one course in high school, they wanted to integrate financial education throughout the school system. So starting at about Grade 3 or 4 and going all the way to the end of high school, they introduce it it into things like math, economics and other courses. This process is harder and takes longer.
It’s going quite well in Manitoba, but Ontario is having some problems. A lot of teachers don’t feel very comfortable about teaching about financial issues.
Q. In one column you suggested that financial literacy means saying no to business interests in the schools. Can you tell me a little bit about why this is a concern and what the alternatives might be?
A. We already have a lot of business interests targeting schools. For example, Visa Canada wants to introduce a course about responsible spending. The course is totally sensible but the sponsor is aiming to get kids indebted by the age of 18, continuing for the rest of their lives
The Canadian Banker’s Association has a program where they send banker’s into schools to talk to students about money just as a one-time thing. But there is a little too much emphasis on RRSPs which really isn’t relevant to 16 or 18 year olds. There should be more about basic budgeting skills, deciding between a want and a need, and making sure not to overspend.
Q. Even if financial literacy programs become standard fare in high schools, how can we ensure the programs are engaging and interesting for young people so they don’t just tune out?
A. Make it relevant to people’s lives and the issues they’re experiencing at the moment.
Children in high school have some immediate needs. They need to know about the cost of post secondary education and how much that will be in dollars and cents. Who is going to pay for it? How do you manage a student loan? How do you pay for transportation? What’s the cost of all the gadgets they buy? Why it doesn’t make sense to buy with a credit card if you’re still paying it off a few years later and yet you’re ready to move onto the next device.
Q. You have been teaching basic investment concepts to adults for many years. What do you tell them about the role of a financial advisor, and the questions they should ask before signing on with one?
A. It’s very important for people to have a good financial advisor. Five to 10% of Canadians can actually be their own financial advisor but the rest need some financial advice.
Many of the people out there dispensing financial advice are working for big banks and other financial institutions. They are basically sales people who get incentives to accumulate as many assets under management and they encourage them to borrow to invest. Their whole expertise is about the accumulation phase, which is building up assets towards retirement but there’s a big gap once people retire or are about to retire. Many financial advisors are not skilled in how to keep more after-tax income in your pocket.
Check their references to make sure they’re registered. Do online research
Make sure they listen. If they’re diagnosing and recommending before they get to know you that usually means it’s some kind of off the shelf solution instead of a custom approach.
Finally, don’t get too friendly with them. Once your lives get too intertwined it’s pretty hard to fire them. Friendship should never interfere with a business relationship.
Thanks Ellen. It was a pleasure to chat with you. I know Saskatchewan Pension Plan members will be eagerly awaiting the release of your new book 99 Ways to Fight Back and they will also want to check out your Toronto Star articles and your blogs on moneyville.ca and ellenroseman.com.