March 6, 2013 at 12:26 PM ET
You scrimped and saved, built a business, managed your growing fortune wisely. Now, according to studies of the super-rich and the merely wealthy alike, you have one overwhelming concern: How do get your well-off children or grandchildren to think more like you?
Relax: Your kids are probably getting these financial lessons of life on the Internet.
A host of digital entrepreneurs, banks and investment firms are building web and mobile platforms that educate youngsters about money—teaching grade-schoolers how to earn and save for things they want, middle-schoolers how to pay rent and college students how to trade stocks.
The trend is known as "gamification" because the learning comes through computer-game simulations of real-world financial events. Children adopt the personas of college grads getting their first apartment, young moms on a tight budget or small business owners. They pay for groceries and clothes, balance checking accounts and save for big-ticket items.
According to financial educators, gamification is designed not only to teach basic concepts but also to start conversations that let parents instill financial values in their offspring—or, often, to catch up with what kind of economic decisions their kids are already making.
"They have money already," said Eileen Reid, a middle-school family and consumer science teacher in Howard County, Md. "They are getting cellphones and dealing with which plan costs what. They are very aware of their lifestyle." Their parents are the ones who are uncomfortable talking about money, said Reid, whose own financial upbringing was of the "Do you think money grows on trees?" variety.
In her classroom, Reid uses a computer program called JA Finance Park Virtual, a collaboration of Capital One and the nonprofit organization Junior Achievement, to cement lessons she teaches from the blackboard.
"It's an eye-opener for them," she said. "They realize they can't afford what they want their [virtual] children to have. They want $120 tennis shoes, so they have to figure out how to pay for it."
Questions about sneakers quickly become discussions about how money represents priorities, Reid said. "What do you value? Is it really important to give to a charity? Should I continue with my education?" she said. "It's fascinating to watch them come to life when we get to the virtual experience."
The game, used in 468 schools nationwide, has been part of the curriculum at Maryland schools since 2010, after the financial crisis had made business leaders aware of the widespread ignorance about how mortgages, credit cards and other basic financial instruments work.
"The business community started going to the state legislature and said , 'We have to get people more literate,' " Reid said.
Other parents aren't waiting for schools to start the conversation.
Monica Giles, a hairstylist in Denver, has been using the accounting tool Tykoon.comwith her 6- and 8-year-old boys. Giles and her husband set up profiles on the site listing household chores and the allowance paid for each task. The boys set savings goal, and fill their online shopping carts with toys and other treasures they hope to buy.
Tykoon turns parent-child "I want this!" battles into conversations about financial responsibility, Giles said. "When you're out shopping, you can turn it back on them," she said. "I ask them, 'Well, do you have enough Tykoon money?' "
Though Tykoon awards kids virtual "coins" for achieving their goals, the money they earn for chores is real—"from the Bank of Mom and Dad," said Mark Bruinooge, a former Bank of America executive who developed the site with The Lending Tree founder Doug Lebda, with helpfrom family therapists.
At first, Giles said, she wanted her kids to see and use physical money. But as transactions become increasingly digital, she said, "kids need to realize that when you see the number on the screen go down, what they have left is real money, and you decide what to move over to savings and what you spend. It's a good transition to banks."
Of course, that's precisely what the companies promoting gamification are counting on.
When Tykoon is fully operational, it will be offered free to users if they link their account with the site to a partner bank. (An unlinked Tykoon subscription will cost $4.95 a month.) As families mingle their Tykoon activities with real savings accounts, "banks can build brand equity with the family," Bruinooge said.
The banks hope gamification will not only attract future customers but help convert them to using online services, which are cheaper to provide than in-person interactions. In Europe, where banks adopted gamification earlier than their American counterparts, there are games for adults as well as children—all aimed squarely at promoting web banking.
Some see educating the next generation about money as too serious to be left to games.
"Our viewpoint is that investment is a serious activity, and should not be driven by amusements," said Nicole Sherrod, managing director of TD Ameritrade's trading group. "We are investing in the knowledge of today's youth, as they are the clients of tomorrow."
For the past two years, the company has made its online trading platform, Think or Swim, available to students at 60 high schools and colleges across the country. The educational version comes with a play trading account with $100,000 in "paper money"—what others in the finance education business call virtual cash.
"They learn about the stock market using the same platform that their parents are trading on," Sherrod said. "It bridges the gap between academics and reality."
That gap is closed altogether at the University of Idaho. For the past seven years, finance students at the Moscow campus have used Think or Swim to build on a $1 million endowment to the state school by trader Rotchford Barker.
In a prerequisite course called Market Trading Strategies, students familiarize themselves with the program and trade using the system's paper money. In Trading 2, the 15 or so students in the Barker Capital Management Group make consensus decisions about investments and implement them using real money.
"We invest in all sorts of asset classes—equities, bonds, futures, derivatives" using "the gamut of investing ideas," said Mat Schaefer, a senior and chief investment officer of the group. The largest amount Schaefer recalls investing in one day is $100,000, and he says they haven't lost money in any semester. "We're not going really for radical growth. The main thing were learning is risk management."
While it's exciting to get a big winner, Schaefer added, the group's main concern is "to have money around for future students."For those worried about what's going to happen to their hard-earned money, it's the best lesson their children could learn.
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