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Finance in Classrooms
Posted on September 19, 2012 by Linda Zukauskas

Misha Kaufman of Centsable wants to bring kids and money together in school, adding personal finance to reading, writing, and arithmetic.


The coefficient of linear expansion, check. Writing algorithms, yup. Dividing decimals, you betcha. Balancing a checkbook, not so much.


In classrooms across the country, kids are taught to look at numbers in the most abstract ways. Yet, most still learn about family finance the same way they learn about the birds and the bees.  If parents didn’t sit them down for a talk, then they hear things–often strange things–from friends or learn the hard way, from bad experiences.


Misha Kaufman thinks there’s a better way.  The 22-year old formed a non-profit organization called Centsable to introduce a financial curriculum in public schools. In fact, he feels adding this to the classroom syllabus is critical if we ever hope to end the cycle of poverty.


The problems apparent in that cycle of poverty have to do with minor habits, according to Mr. Kaufman. Without the tools to manage money, people get into or stay in situations where they have a lower quality of life.  “For me, it’s essential to know how to manage finances and the language of money,” he says.  As the son of an accountant, Kaufman was fortunate to become fluent in money matters early on. Fresh out of college (he graduated this year), he’s intent on passing on his wealth of knowledge. “If you don’t know that, you can work as hard as you want but never save or build investment capital for the future.”


The plan to develop and implement a financial literacy curriculum began while Kaufman was still a junior in college, with the idea to develop a financial literacy application for the iPhone.  The problem was, his target market didn’t exist.  His preliminary research showed that those who could afford an iPhone already had financial literacy.  Those who needed the education wouldn’t be able to access his app without the money to buy the device.


He asked himself, “What is the core issue?  How can I be of service?” The questions triggered meetings with people in education, finance, politics, and the non-profit world.  When he discovered that financial literacy wasn’t being taught in a systematic way, he found himself on a mission. He’d fight to get financial literacy taught in public schools as a way of preparing kids for the future. “The Declaration of Independence talks about pursuit of happiness but you can’t get there without financial freedom,” says Kaufman. “Financial freedom means the ability to be true to yourself.  Sure, people have to work to pay the rent, but if you can position yourself by budgeting and making smart investments to be financially independent, then you can do the work you want versus must do.”


To get started, he put together a think tank of experts, and then enlisted teachers to develop a curriculum. But fighting the board of education can be a lot like fighting city hall, so he hired a liaison to work the local political scene. Marketing experts spread the word, and a staff of 15 jumped into the trenches to do the work.


Last fall, the program debuted in the Boys and Girls School in Brooklyn and it will be taught in two more schools this fall. But Kaufman isn’t hanging any ‘Mission Accomplished’ banners just yet. The Centsable staff is working to introduce the curriculum to schools in Massachusetts, D.C., Michigan, and California.


To measure the program’s success, there are tests before and after each program.  “We’ve seen a huge increase in financial literacy, but that’s just one way to measure the impact,” says Kaufman.  On a national scale, financial literacy is coming up as a major issue and we’re starting to understand its importance.”


Kaufman says he won’t be satisfied until he has a sustainable organization that creates positive change.  “Success is having a vision and moving toward it with tangible goals.”


Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, Kaufman was in an orphanage for three years before coming to the U.S. “I was adopted by very altruistic parents who taught me the importance of philanthropy.  In high school, I worked in an orphanage in Romania where I made a connection with a little girl named Mia, and when I came home, I was interested in organizing camps, mentoring and helping out with different community ventures. “My dad taught me the importance of saving and budgeting.  I thought that was normal until I was older.”


Feeling fortunate that he learned financial literacy while growing up, Kaufman views Centsable as a way to get hands-on experience with one of his goals for the future—working for a non-profit.  As he pivots, dodges and ducks while navigating this new world, he says he’s “learning how to stay true to the original vision while growing in the long run.” A big part of the company’s success hinges on partnerships. He’s working with his alma mater, Columbia University, to identify funding sources, tap into information from professors and taking advantage of existing networks.  “Meeting the right people and networking is a challenge.  The key to our work is getting into the schools.”


For many entrepreneurs, Mr. Kaufman’s ultimate goal is rather counterintuitive.  “It’s funny, but if we are successful, no one will know what Centsable was.  Financial literacy would be automatic and no one would think twice about it.  The organization is important but the mission is more important.”


Do you think it is important to teach kids about finance in school? Join the discussion on Ballooning Nest Eggs Facebook page.