I could make a list of all the things I’m not good at, and it would fill this column space. It would include swimming, singing, cooking, and anything that requires athleticism or construction skills. I wouldn’t even include the things I haven’t yet tried, but in which I know I would fail. Those would include skydiving, roofing, and performing surgery. Truth be told, the list of things I can do well would fit in one sentence. Like for instance, math.

Some of my earliest memories are lying in bed, doing math problems in my head. I’m not talking advanced math, calculus, or geometry. But I’ve always been able to do basic calculations, fractions and measurements.

My wife knows my limitations, so she won’t ask me to use a chainsaw. But if she’s trying to work from a recipe that serves six people, and we only have four to feed, I’m her man. Same goes for balancing checkbooks and filing tax returns. I enjoy that stuff. It’s my only gift, so I wear it out.

I cruised through math classes in school, but when I graduated, the real world splashed ice water in my face. The insurance salespeople came calling, and they were using words I had never heard before. Then came the investment advisors, promising me that if I handed over a few bucks to them each month, I could retire at 40 (I guess you know how that worked out). When it came time to buy a house, the bankers proved to me that my checkbook skills were no match for their mortgages, closing costs, and interest rates. And, oh, those sly credit card ads. They don't tell you that paying only the minimum amount is a financial disaster for you, but a windfall for MasterCard.

I don't blame my teachers. They were doing their jobs, making me memorize all sorts of arcane trivia so that I could pass the tests. Still, I feel someone should be held accountable for sending me into Grown-up World with a full understanding of how water evaporates, but no clue about those big insurance words like liability, comprehensive, and deductible. Really? Y’all had me in school all those years, but you couldn't squeeze that in? 

I hear you. “Well, that’s a job for parents!” That’s a valid argument, up to a point. My dad handled the financial details, and if I had asked, he would have explained. Frankly, I wasn’t interested, and no one told me I should be. From what I’ve observed, most folks are in the same boat. They entered the workforce, got married, and bought cars, homes, and insurance with no idea what they were doing.

I ranted about this lack of financial training for a few decades, and maybe someone finally listened. A few years ago, Tennessee became one of the few states (there are now five) to require high school students to pass a personal finance class before getting a diploma. 

In theory, and occasionally in practice, it works well. Some schools take the class seriously, with a teacher who combines good lessons with real-life experience. Unfortunately, others treat it as a goof-off class, similar to what driver education became in some schools, before it was largely eliminated. In researching this story, I asked more than one principal, “Do you have a good personal finance teacher I could observe?” before being told, “Uh, David, between us, you should probably ask another school.” That’s a real vote of confidence. (By the way, I eventually found a very good one, Mr. Grant Reynolds.)

After reading a survey of U.S. college students that revealed most of them feel “financially unprepared,” I visited a classroom at my local university. I learned that otherwise brilliant students are lost when it comes to money. As one told me incredulously, “So I’m about to graduate, and now they tell me I have to pay back these student loans? I didn’t see THAT coming.” She was serious.

I asked a classroom full of college students this question. “Let’s say you love Cheerios. You always pay $2.39 a box, and you’re about to run out. You go to the store, and you see an ad. It says tomorrow, you can buy TWO boxes of Cheerios for $4.99! What should you do?”

The response was unanimous. “I’d wait until they go on sale!” When I explained they could buy the two boxes today, for just $4.78, they were stunned. I had unlocked the secret to life. They said, from now on, they would be more careful about impulse buying. 

No doubt about it, I was a weird kid. But I’m glad I stayed up late, doing those math problems in my head. At least I’m good at something.

(David Carroll, a Chattanooga news anchor, is the author of “Volunteer Bama Dawg,,” available on his website, ChattanoogaRadioTV.com.  You may contact him at radiotv2020@yahoo.com, or 900 Whitehall Road, Chattanooga, TN 37405)

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