"Checkbook Math" Being Phased Out Of High Schools

We may indeed have a nation of financially illiterate youths, but despite cries for increased financial education in public high schools, the one program that’s historically addressed this—“checkbook math”—has never enjoyed a reputation as a “real” math class because the actual math skills involved are so basic, and it’s being phased out as most students avoid it because, as one student says, it “doesn’t look good for colleges.”

The problem, writes the Washington Post, is that since higher math classes and “consumer math” classes teach very different skill sets, many students graduate high school competent in higher math but unfamiliar with the sort of basic knowledge used to manage bank accounts, loans, and investments.

“This is actually the one class I think is realistic toward becoming an adult,” said Rountree, 17. “We learn how to balance checkbooks, which is a life need. We’ve learned how to purchase a car on kelleybluebook.com. Consumer math is, I think, the one class that has actually helped me.”

The article looks at how Virginia’s statewide mandate to teach personal finance skills has played out over the past few years, with finance-related topics scattered throughout other programs instead of condensed into a specific course. Personally, we’ve always thought of consumer math as a sort of home economics subject, to be taught alongside “real” math classes, not in place of; you wouldn’t subsitute a history class for an English class just because both require reading comprehension. One professional, however, has another suggestion:

Fennell, of the math teachers council, believes high schools should retool consumer math as a more rigorous course, with exercises rooted in algebra rather than arithmetic, exploring such topics as the complexities of a cellphone plan and the spiraling debt engendered by a credit card.

“‘Checkbook Math’ Increasingly Rare” [Washington Post]
(Photo: Getty)

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  1. elroyerni says:

    Is it just me, or does everyone else get annoyed when people in front of you pay by check? Thats what debit cards are for!

  2. mopar_man says:

    Brilliant. I guess school systems are hoping that future presidents will keep bailing out those who don’t know how to manage their money.

  3. realwx says:

    That’s weird… I go to the neighboring high school several miles away (Paint Branch) and Consumer Math is only for the special needs class, and isn’t being phased out (at least to my knowledge). Maybe this is only for Blake High School.

  4. amoeba says:

    @elroyerni: sometimes I pay with checks because I need to track some purchases (for my job). I think I get more annoyed by people like you when complaint. If you know how to manage your money, it really doesn’t matter what system you use to pay. I had said…

    It’s a great idea to teach HS kids how to do math using a checkbook. It sounds fun and exciting.

  5. girly says:

    Just call the class personal finance–don’t classify it as a math class

  6. Pylon83 says:

    @elroyerni:
    Yes. Who still pays with a check? It takes ages, and credit card receipts provide for much better record keeping anyway.

  7. Omi says:

    My high school (one particularly focused on college preparation) hasn’t offered the class for years. It was removed long before I even entered high school.

    It seems that the attitude is that teaching financial responsibility is the responsibility of the parents.

  8. Tired_ says:

    I don’t see why they can’t just roll this subject matter into the standard math curriculum. That way everybody gets it without having to dedicate a course slot to it on your transcript.

  9. bohemian says:

    Personal Finance should be a class that is mandatory for graduation. It needs to include the checkbook math and the higher math exercises mentioned by Fennell. It should also have lessons on how to spot a scam, how credit cards and loans work, how to research a purchase and probably an entire semester on how marketing is used to manipulate people.

  10. K-Bo says:

    I took a class in “consumer math” in highschool, but I unfortunatly forgot all but the checkbook balancing ( which I used at the time ) before I got out of my parents house to use it. Fortunately I’m the kind of person who realizes I need to know these things and finds ways to find them out or I’d be just as lost as if I had never taken that class.

  11. marsneedsrabbits says:

    I finished calculus, but the math class that was most helpful by far was my 9th grade geometry class. I still use geometry to figure out how much paint to buy and stuff like that, but the best part is that toward the end of the year, we learned to file taxes. Our teacher had photocopied all of the documents needed to file a tax return and passed them out and we did them as a class. Receipts, W-2s, bank statements, etc., everything. All of the identifying information was blanked out. He must’ve done it himself – I remember the forms being “homemade” looking.
    I not only learned how to file taxes, but what deductions are, and (importantly) how much FICA takes.
    He also taught how to balance a check book using blank check registries, how to calculate interest, and that kind of thing. Even how to read the stock pages from the newspaper.
    I still think of him every year when I file my taxes.
    I wish all kids could have the same sort of experience. He was a great teacher who was ahead of his time.
    I have grown friends (all women) who can’t do any of those things. They aren’t stupid, but they are naive and so scared to make a mistake that they never try. That’s a shame.

  12. mconfoy says:

    Yea, this is a big so what. We loose because most Americans can’t handle calculus, differential equations, etc.

  13. WV.Hillbilly says:

    @elroyerni:Don’t like me paying with a check?
    Fuck you.

    Most people will use this kind of math far more than algebra or calculus. When was the last time you needed to work a differential equation?

  14. SarcasticDwarf says:

    I think this is simply a bigger part of the change from teaching life skills in high school to teaching college prep courses. I moved from a very good school district in KS to district on LI, NY my senior year of high school five years ago (ouch, that makes me feel old). While there everyone was required to take a course which went over in practical terms how the US legal system works. There we learned about how civil and criminal cases work, differences in burdens of proof, time frames, etc. Without a doubt I learned more in that single semester class than any other class in all of high school…yet oddly enough that kind of class is rarely taught.

  15. Jacquilynne says:

    When I was in high school, all 10th graders had a mandatory class called Consumer Education. It wasn’t counted as a math credit or anything, just a class you had to take to graduate. We covered a bunch of stuff — resumes and career planning, types of bank accounts and credit accounts and how to calculate interest on loans, introductory stuff on how the Canadian legal system works, and a bit of basic computer stuff (this was in the early 90s when computer literacy was *not* at all a given in high school aged kids).

    I got more out of some parts of that class than other parts, admittedly, but I think it was a superb example of a class that taught kids some useful, practical skills. It wasn’t streamed towards remedial kids or honours kids — everyone is going to need to know how credit cards work, after all, and anyone could end up with a speeding ticket they want to fight, so they made everyone take the class.

  16. j-yo says:

    Public schools are under so much pressure nowadays to have their students pass federally mandated standardized testing that most of the school year is geared towards teaching students how to pass these tests. There is no longer any time or resources left for life skills, arts or any other interesting electives. So we have kids who have no idea how to handle their finances graduating from high school and going off to college, where credit card companies will try to lure them into applying for high-interest credit cards.

    When I attended high school in the ’80s (yes, I’m THAT old!) we were required to take one semester of home economics, where I learned how to balance a checkbook and how to identify and use different cooking utensils, and one semester of shop, where I learned basic carpentry skills. Although the rest of my classes were college-prep ones, these two were probably the ones that got me furthest in life.

  17. witeowl says:

    This is another way we are failing our children. By eliminating “consumer math” and other life-skills courses (not to mention shopand other trade classes)for non-college bound students, we are failing to meet the needs of many, many young adults. Right now, our school district has, basically, two classes of high school students: those who will graduate and go to college, and those who will drop-out before graduating. Not surprisingly, businesses are now screaming because they can’t find qualified youth to fill jobs in the “skilled trades” industries.

    Sure, every student should have the opportunity to go to college. However, not every student is destined to, and we should help those students reach their maximum sans-college potential. We should stop making them feel like complete failures from the time they enter High School.

  18. BigNutty says:

    I agree with calling it a personal finance class, as long as they teach true financial education concepts such as the miracle of compound interest, investing for their future, IRA’s, 401k’s and everything else that seems foreign to kids when they start working.

    Oh, information about loans, contracts and credit cards would be a must.

  19. jdsmn says:

    As I read this, I was thinking that this is something the parents just need to sit down with their children and do. When I was 16, I had my first credit card (Mom as a cosigner) and checkbook. I didn’t get careless with the card, and if I made a purchase on the CC, I would have to put cash in an envelope. When I turned 18, I had all sorts of offers for better credit cards and a decent beginner’s credit history. When the checking statement came in, I would have to sit down and reconcile my checkbook. I hated every minute of it, but now I can realize the importance of it.

  20. joemama321 says:

    I teach personal finance at the college level. I teach at a regional state university in the NE (so not a University of XYZ). The class was originally supposed to be couched as a “here is how you do financial planning for other people” since it is part of the finance curriculum. However, it turns out that most of our soon-to-be finance grads don’t know a 1040 from a 401(k). So my logical next step was to get them to understand their own finances. I don’t expect to crank out tax experts, but it made me extremely uncomfortable to spend 10 minutes lecturing about an average vs. marginal tax rate only to stump them when asking what 10% of $1550 is. Eighty percent of them looked at me blankly and went for their calculators. That’s ridiculous.

    A popular question: “Why do we need this to learn this when we can get TurboTax?” Well, so you can plan. So you can realize how to save on taxes before it’s time to pay them. So you can be a real citizen who recognizes when changes in the law might not be in your best interest.

    This may border on a diatribe, but it’s my feeling that you now have a generation of kids growing up in two-income households so the kids can have “a better life”. I’m not talking about those that work two jobs so they can eat. That’s different. I’m talking about those who work two jobs so they can have the lake house or the really good SUV. So, out of guilt, they do everything in their power to get their kids prepped for the best schools. And since the world is so competitive, the parents do the work on behalf of the child so they aren’t at a disadvantage. Boom. A generation of near-idiots who have no self-motivation or accountability. And, as we see in the article, no street smarts. Calculus is useful and dare I say fun, but you need to crawl before you can run.

    My theory is that this is all cyclical. This crop of American college grads will help drive the country into further decline once they are in charge. Hopefully their kids will be the next wave of “the greatest generation” which will understand the value of working hard and of doing beyond the minimum to get their kids into better positions than they were left with.

    And before I’m called out as an old-fart pining for the good old days, I recently turned 30.

    I think the movie Idiocracy, while hyperbole, isn’t crazily off the mark with where we are headed.

  21. the_wiggle says:

    @amoeba: agreed. funding method is not what’s important, the knowledge to skillfully handle the funds is.

    also, just try to handle school fund raisers, church donations etc. by debit or credit card.

    i loathe those stupid commercials where the whacky world grinds to a halt whenever a checks or cash appear.

  22. EtherealStrife says:

    @WV.Hillbilly: Regarding checks, it’s the people who dig through their purse for 15+ seconds, then ask for a pen, then ask for the date, etc etc that seem to really piss people off. If you have to pay by check then cool, but PLEASE: start making it out before you get to the register!

  23. goodkitty says:

    Hmm… first credit card and usage fees skyrocket, then we stop teaching the next generation how to manage their finances… do I smell a plot here?

  24. iamme99 says:

    “We may indeed have a nation of financially illiterate youths”.

    Ha. We have a nation of mostly financially illiterate adults who were previously financially illiterate and math challenged youths.

    At the holidays, try this little test: See how many adults who have been out of school 10 or more years can successfully add fractions (say 1/3 + 3/4) or can convert fractions to decimals and vice-versa. Most of the time, the results are not very good, even if you let them write it out on paper.

  25. trollkiller says:

    @joemama321: You had me all the way up to “calculus is fun”.

    A few thing should be mandantory by the 9th grade.

    Typing, I hated the class but I type everyday and it is nice to know where the keys are.

    Home economics, I wish I had taken the course to teach me to be able to patch a torn garment and to cook.

    Personal finances, I did not have that in school but knowing how to file taxes, figure interest rates, balance an account, or the 100 other things I have to do as an adult would have been helpful.

  26. zolielo says:

    costs.@bohemian: I taught Personal Finance. It was basically about consumer credit, consumer spending, and investing for the short run and the long run. Housing and real estate investing, personal financial planning, and various investment vehicles such as equity, fixed rate of return instruments, annuities, and insurance as well as the fundamentals of tax planning are addressed. The emphasis was on evaluating choices and understanding the consequences of decisions in terms of opportunity costs, trades, and margins. Plus I added in a bit of money and banking, growth models, and the real fundamentals such as check book balancing.

  27. jamar0303 says:

    @marsneedsrabbits: I wish my school taught that. I feel the same way- I’ll have to get help when I file taxes in the future because I have no idea how and I don’t know where to go to learn.

  28. protest says:

    @joemama321:

    i’m glad i’m not the only one who got freaked out by that movie.

  29. forgottenpassword says:

    As far as I can remember… my school never taught any of that (graduated in 91).

    Besides….I never need to balance my checkbook. I write 2 checks a month & everything else is paid with a credit card (that is paid off every month). Much easier than writing 50 checks or using a debit card.

  30. PinkBox says:

    It isn’t THAT hard to manage a checkbook.

    I never took a class for it, and amazingly enough – I can still balance a checkbook!

  31. ColoradoShark says:

    @elroyerni: I get annoyed when someone in front of me has been waiting on line for awhile, has all their purchases rung up when it is their turn and then digs out their checkbook and starts filling out the check.
    Couldn’t you find the checkbook while waiting on line, fill in the name of the store & date so you are ready to just write in the amount and sign it?

  32. in Illinois, they teach it in Consumer Ed, and it is required for graduation.

    But it doesn’t seem that Illinois has adults particularly more successful at money management than other states, so I that leads me to question its effectiveness, even though I think it’s a good idea in theory.

    (Aside, I wanted to teach a basic personal finance/money management class at a local mission church in a poor area, because I was appalled working with Legal Aid and some other volunteer orgs by how some didn’t even know what a checking account WAS, let alone how to get one or what to do with it. The mission church told me the poor people nearby didn’t need personal finance classes, they needed JESUS. I was like, I’m pretty sure they’ve got Jesus, and I’m pretty sure they need MONEY FOR FOOD. But no dice.)

  33. From the Post article: “The gradual elimination of the course from high schools comes as lawmakers, corporate leaders and many parents are decrying the financial illiteracy of the young.”

    I wonder — are the young of this generation less financially literate than the young of the last three or four? Or is it just that we actually care about and do statistical data-gathering on impoverished students these days? A lot of times it seems like when they say, “Most people used to be able to balance a checkbook” what they actually mean is, “Most people with access to financial products before universal banking access laws knew how to balance a checkbook.” Which would mean wealthy people.

    Not that I wouldn’t like to see an entire nation of savvy, educated consumers. Just that anything that moans, “KIDS TODAY!” makes me suspicious.

  34. MotherFury says:

    Whether or not you pay by check, or pay by debit card, you still need to know how to read and balance a checking account statement – as well as your credit card statements, savings, etc.

    When we setup our (then) 16 yr old son & daughter w/ checking account and instructed them both to “balance your accounts on a monthly basis” using the bank statements. They both agreed to do that and I assumed that they had the same consumer math instruction I had in high school. Bad on me for assuming.

    Within two months they were both overdrawn… because neither knew how to balance the account and thought they could get by with monitoring the balance online.

    We had a four hour session of “checkbook math” one night to teach them the basics, but I have to say that I was appalled when I realized they didn’t even know how to keep or follow a ledger. They could both tell me how to find the square root of pi, but I don’t think that’s going to help much with mortgage payments and such.

  35. econobiker says:

    @Eyebrows McGee:

    The same lawmakers, corporate leaders, and parents squawking about this financial illiteracy are the same ones who run from sponsoring new taxes for schools, ask for their business’s to get tax abatements, and whine about the pay that teachers get.

  36. stickystyle says:

    After working my butt off going through the whole ‘college prep’ math in jr and sr high school my final year I said f-it and took ‘business math’ (which sounds like what this post is about). I can’t tell you the last time i used a quadratic equation, or needed the pythagorean theorem, but i need to know how much money i have every day – that class helped.

  37. quagmire0 says:

    I think a financial budgeting class and classes examining the horrors of credit card debt would be much more useful. Checkbooks will be going away very soon. (For most people, they already have).

  38. Jacquilynne says:

    @witeowl: I think viewing this as failing the kids who aren’t going on to college is a wrong-approach. By viewing these kind of ‘how to exist in the world skills’ as something only the non-college bound kids need, it’s easy to label them as something for the poor and the dumb and marginalize the necessity. The marginalized kids aren’t the ones whose parents are the school board trustees. These are skills that *every* kid needs, and the adults who are raising them and running the school system need to recognize that.

  39. jeff303 says:

    If you’re going to have a class like this, fine, but don’t call it “math” since it’s just trivial arithmetic and that isn’t even the point. If anything it should be under the “personal responsibility” department, assuming public schools would even have such a thing.

  40. Javert says:

    This is a class? Wow. For math credit? I am sorry but it takes a semester to learn to take the number from one column subrtract it from the other and write down the new number? If anything, this should be in a more general class about personal finance. Balancing a checkbook is a joke. Seeing what $100 deposited a month in a high interest account from the time you are 18 is a lesson all should learn but not in a math class. But I still cannot get over an entire class on checkbook math. It sounds like one of those classes the all-star jocks take because it is a joke. Just b/c you can balance a checkbook has absolutely no relation to your financial knowledge.

    Good riddance to a waste of a class.

  41. Mary says:

    @SarcasticDwarf: “I think this is simply a bigger part of the change from teaching life skills in high school to teaching college prep courses.”

    That’s really very true.

    My college actually had a requirement called “quantitative reasoning.” You had to take a test that proved you could do the math required to get by in everyday life, like balancing checkbooks and understanding interest. If you couldn’t pass it, you had to take Math 101, which was basically the type of class you describe.

    I think that math classes overall should be more focused on making you see the real world applications of what you’re learning, so the idea of working the same plans into a regular math class makes more sense to me. When I started studying for my GREs, I was so frustrated because I’d forgotten how to do most of the problems, I never used that kind of thing. When my husband started helping me, he started using real world examples to help me see how I _was_ using that sort of math all the time, just not in the way the test or the classes present it.

  42. stre says:

    The “Consumer Math” class in my high school was a lesson in addition and subtraction. It shouldn’t look good to a college. I agree with Fennel (from the story) and girly (from the comments). Change the name and make it about understanding present day finances: credit card interest, car loans, consolidations (since they’ll hopefully be going to college and will have that option for student loans), keeping good credit, etc. It’ll be more useful (check registers are less and less common anyway) and more rigorous at the same time.

  43. cerbie says:

    Isn’t checkbook balancing part of econ/civics (along with how mortgage interest and normal compound interest work, the age old stock game)?

    Why on Earth is a separate course needed? And this is coming from someone who regrets not dropping out earlier…what else are they not teaching, now? Oh, and it’s not math.
     

    @witeowl, others: destined to go to college or not, a wide variety of courses should be offered, and some of each required. There’s no good reason (barring medical reasons :)) that a nerd who’ll get a free ride won’t benefit from classes not normally related to academia, like shop classes. As the great dirty old man once penned, “specialization is for insects.”

    Anyway, you don’t know that the kid with a 160 IQ and straight As wouldn’t be perfectly happy using that in his own time, and working at a low-rent body shop for wages. Yet, he’s got barriers to get there just as (though not as great, admittedly) the guy who’s never been allowed to think he can do anything requiring mental skills has to becoming a psychologist, even if he was practically born to research how our minds work. It takes all kinds, but all kinds aren’t being prepared.

    @the_wiggle: generally, agreed. But, you are also assuming some intelligence and training…sadly. Cash is much slower at Walmart than it is if I, say, eat Chinese take-out. Coincidence? If nothing changes our direction, those ads will be categorically true, before too long.

  44. wickedpixel says:

    does this really need to be an entire class in high school? we learned how to balance a checkbook as part of my 4th grade math curriculum.

  45. stubblyhead says:

    I don’t think I have ever ever balanced my checkbook. I don’t even keep a register, although I admit I almost never actually write checks anymore either.

  46. joemama321 says:

    @trollkiller:

    Agreed.

    Maybe the competition is just that much steeper than it was 8 years ago, but I had the opportunity to take both typing and home economics. I can type 70 wpm, sew on a button and still managed to get into a top public research universities for my bachelors and doctoral programs.

    I’m in a relatively quantitative field, and I will tell you that I have used a sewing machine more times than I’ve inverted an n x k matrix since graduate school.