Financial Literacy for Everyone
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Fostering Financial Literacy

February 19, 2009 Calgary Herald

Byline: Mario Toneguzzi
Column: A City's Soul

Ian Balfour, a former Paralympic alpine skier knows the value of understanding the world of finances. Balfour, who today is an associate with the law firm Blake, Cassels & Graydon in Calgary, recently helped Visa launch its newly-revised financial literacy resource named Choices & Decisions: Taking Charge of Your Financial Life.

The resource, which was originally published in 1996, is an in-class resource used by educators across the country to help students and young adults set financial goals, develop budgets, identify how and when to use credit and the basics of the banking system.

A new addition to the program is information to help students protect themselves from financial fraud. On a personal note, I can certainly relate to this. When I graduated from university in 1979 and entered the workforce on a full-time basis, I had virtually no skills in the area of finances outside of knowing how to spend money and how to deposit money into a bank account. I learned through trial and error. Many errors no doubt like many other young adults at that age. So I basically learned on my own everything from budgets, to credit cards, to loans, to saving money, investments, buying a house, etc.

Over the years, I often thought it would make sense to teach students in school at a younger age some important tools and skills in the area of finances. After all, I think that is more important to their future lives than learning the capital city of some obscure country. I recently spoke to Balfour about this. He works with Visa Canada as a mentor for Canadian athletes. Balfour retired from ski racing in 2002 when he was 22 years old after a couple of knee injuries.

When he was in law school, he was contacted by a Visa representative who invited him to participate in the company's mentoring program. Visa provides financial aid to athletes as well as providing mentors like Balfour, who was involved in the 2006 Turin Olympics in Italy and for the 2010 Games in Vancouver. In addition to mentoring athletes, Balfour helps Visa out with speaking engagements and was involved in the re-launch of this particular financial resource program.

"As an amateur athlete, you've got an incredible amount of stress related to sport and funding," he says. "You're getting pulled in a number of different directions and you really have to prioritize and try to find a balance between training and looking for new sponsors and eating right. You've got all of these things on your table." So one of the important things that I found in my career and it took me a while to get to that point was that being fiscally literate can really help you maximize your resources and it can be as simple as setting up a budget but you really sort of have to stick to that budget and follow through. The small amount of money that amateur athletes live on and train on can be amplified and you can use it as efficiently as possible."

That too is important for students in school. "I can remember leaving high school and going to university. I grew up in southern Alberta. We didn't have any programs like this. As a young adult leaving the house, it's good to have a grasp of what your financial picture looks like and how you can improve it and use it as effectively and efficiently as possible. "To some extent students have similar pressures that amateur athletes do. Maybe not to the same degree but maybe in certain circumstances more so--when they're helping out at home, if they're volunteering, doing team sports, trying to get good grades for college or university. They've got all these different priorities. And sometimes, I think it's often the case, the first thing that slips by them --and if their parents don't teach it to them, it's not available in their curriculum in high school, you really don't get exposure to it--and that's financial literacy and it's something that everyone should have a basic understanding of. I'm not sure that's necessarily the case."

Choices & Decisions includes practical, ready-to-use lesson plans designed by classroom teachers for use in schools. Each lesson contains goals, lesson objectives, timelines, teacher notes, teaching instructions and evaluation suggestions. There are supplemental activities as well. Close to 100 teachers across Alberta have requested the resource. During the past 12 years, the program has helped more than 500,000 Canadian students better understand the fundamentals of the sometimes daunting world of finance. "It's a great starting point to get the basics," adds Balfour.