Teaching kids about money isn't easy. Stephen Carter's new book can help

Policygenius talked with Carter about the new book and how parents can get involved in teaching their children about money.

Myelle Lansat

By 

Myelle Lansat

Myelle Lansat

News Editor

Myelle Lansat is a news editor at Policygenius, where she writes the Easy Money newsletter and covers insurance and personal finance. Previously, she was a personal finance writer at CNBC and Acorns, and a reporter for Business Insider.

Published February 10, 2022 | 6 min read

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As a high school teacher in Cincinnati, Ohio, Stephen Carter felt motivated to write a personal finance book that would engage students. In his research, he discovered the easiest way to engage young people is with a story, not a step-by-step-guide. “The Seed Tree” is a fictional, fast-paced dialogue between the main character Andrew, a high school student, and his teacher. 

“I want readers to be pulled into a story that is applicable to them,” Carter says.

Policygenius talked with Carter about the new book and how parents can get involved in teaching their children about money. 

This interview has been slightly edited for length and clarity.

Pg: You tackle a lot of big personal finance topics in the narrative. How can readers apply the lessons in the book to their own finances?

SC: Diving into the world of personal finance can be overwhelming because of all the different topics that are thrown at us. The main character in the book, Andrew, definitely feels that. He's got a lot going on at school, in his life, and with his family. So I would say that it's best to tackle things by going from the big picture to the small picture. One of the chapters in the book deals heavily with goals and goals setting. I believe the foundational piece of this entire fabric of personal finance and financial literacy is knowing where you want to be, your goals, and your end point. Otherwise you're running around in the woods without a compass.

A lot of us think financial freedom is the ultimate destination with finances — the idea of being able to live comfortably off of the money that our money earns and then ask yourself. So, how do I get to that point? As readers go throughout the book, they start with this idea of a lot of topics being thrown at them, and then it becomes very obvious that there's a plan in place to get there. I would say you start with the goal, you work backwards from that big idea to and use tools like compound interest and investing over time to help reach that ultimate goal.

Many people go through school without a personal finance course. How can they seek it out if it’s not available to them?

This topic motivated me to write the book in the first place. For 15 years in the classroom I've heard time and time again, parents say, ‘oh, it's great that you teach math, writing, literature, and U.S. history, but what about credit cards? My student is going to end up with student debt.’ There are now 10 out of 50 states requiring a personal finance course or financial literacy as a graduation requirement for high schools [1] . In early October, Ohio became one of those states — the same time the book was published. I quickly turned the book into an online class that I am marketing to individuals, schools, and homeschool parents. This resource will be available as an online class so people can get the information and apply it to their lives in a really clear cut way. 

How can parents get involved?

I don't anticipate a lot of 15- or 16-year-old students reading a book on personal finances. They're watching Netflix and hanging out with their friends. But parents who see the value in this can get this book for their student, ask them to read it, and maybe have a little book club with them. I'm working on discussion questions right now for my website for parents to have with their students. For example, Andrew's father in the book gives him a financial reward in exchange for taking the class.

I don't think it's beyond parents to say, ‘Hey, you read this book. I'll give you a hundred bucks to invest it in the stock market based on some principles that you read in the book. There are all kinds of great apps right now with wonderful programs where parents can start establishing investment accounts for their kids at a very early age that kids can manage on their own. Parents can have oversight with it — and all of these are concepts that are discussed in the book. I see this as a great way to bond with your student and help set them up for the rest of their lives with financial literacy.

 Are there any financial topics young people wait too long to tackle? 

The biggest one is having a primary understanding of compound interest. I had a conversation with 10th grade students two weeks ago, and I merely brought up the topic of compound interest. I brought it up in such a way as to say, I know you all already get this, but let me show you something about it. And at the end of that class, I had five students come up to me and say  they don’t really understand how compound interest works. After it's explained, I don't care who the person is, a light bulb goes off. When you show them a chart of how that money will grow exponentially over 10, 20, 30, 40 years — it's like, why wouldn't you start saving as a 15-year-old if you’re going to have $3 or $4 million more than if you started as a 25-year-old.  

When writing this book, did you learn anything new about your approach to teaching personal finance?

I did. When writing this book I was pulling on a lot of my experience as an educator and my own reading of personal finance — which is all over the board from the very conservative Dave Ramsey, to not-so-conservative Robert Kiyosaki’s approach and everything in between. As I was doing that, I discovered that my own personal mindset was to empower students to not necessarily accept everything that they read. It sounds kind of ironic to be writing a book and thinking ‘I hope you take these ideas and concepts, but make them your own.’  

You have to find your own path and your own comfort level. I learned it’s not so cut and dry. Even with my own investments, there are times when I have to take more risk and there are times when I have to really embrace the conservative side. That's something I hope to impress with my readers.

We’re a personal finance site, so I have to ask: Why should people spend money on this book?

I listened to a podcast featuring Seth Godin. He says people will ask, ‘why would I drop $20 on a book? I mean, it's a book for crying out loud. I'm not going to pay $20 for that.’ He went on to say, imagine if there's a single concept in a book that if you apply it to your life financially and it yields 10, 20, 30, a hundred times the value of the price of the book. In other words, if you're walking down the street and there was a $500 bill on the ground, and all you had to do to pick up that $500 bill was drop a $20 bill, why wouldn't you do that? That's the attitude I apply toward all personal development. Why wouldn't you go to that conference? Why wouldn't you pay for that online class or that lecture? Why wouldn't you do that? If the rewards in your life are going to far outweigh the initial cost. We're talking about a book that's $13.99 on Amazon, but the information is going to have priceless rewards in an individual's life if it's applied. So when it comes to investments, I cannot think of a better one.

Image: Nastia Kobzarenko