The young people set to graduate this spring will soon be facing adult financial responsibilities, like earning paychecks, paying bills and managing their debts.
But many of these graduates already have advanced degrees from the School of Hard Knocks. Over the past four years, the Class of 2011 has lived through the nation's toughest economic period since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Many students have watched their parents lose jobs — and even homes. Now it's time for this next generation to begin building a better financial foundation for themselves.
It won't be easy for many to get started; student loan debt now surpasses all credit card debt in this country. On the other hand, young Americans have access to better tools for tracking their money, from electronic spreadsheets to budgeting Web sites to mobile banking options.
In addition, many school districts are offering classes in financial literacy. For example, high school teachers and volunteers are trying to help teenagers understand the complex bills sent out by telecom companies offering "bundles" for TV-phone-internet service. But these bundled bills can be so confusing that consumers can't comparison shop for good deals.
Improving financial literacy — the ability to understand bills and financial statements — is an important step that can help young people avoid the mistakes of their parents' generation.
This week on Morning Edition, NPR will be airing Money Counts: Young Adults And Financial Literacy, a five-day series examining the relationship between young people and their finances.
LIANE HANSEN, Host:
This week on MORNING EDITION, NPR will be airing Money Counts, a five-day series examining the relationship between young people and their finances. NPR's senior business editor Marilyn Geewax is here to tell us more. Welcome back, Marilyn.
MARILYN GEEWAX: Hi, Liane.
HANSEN: So, what is it that prompted this series?
GEEWAX: This idea really goes back to late last year when one of our reporters, Chris Arnold, was interviewing a woman who had spent years trying to clear up some complicated paperwork problems that she had had with her mortgage lender. And Chris was focusing on what this mother had gone through while trying to avoid this foreclosure, but it was actually something that her daughter said that caught my ear. Let's listen to this daughter. Her name's Sydney Keyser. She describes what the constant struggle with these lenders and lawyers looked like from her viewpoint as a high-school student.
GEEWAX: That's how it's been for years - just constant stress. You try not to talk about it and then eventually some phone call comes up, and it's just like, OK, time to cry now, time to get angry. That's just been life.
HANSEN: That's a lot of stress for a young person to deal with.
GEEWAX: Her comments helped get the MORNING EDITION staffers thinking about how tough the last four years have been on so many of this year's graduates. We wanted to explore the relationship between young people and their money.
HANSEN: What did the reporters working on the series find?
GEEWAX: Reporter Zoe Chace interviewed a 23-year-old money-savvy young woman and her baby boomer father. The father had gotten into a lot of credit card debt, and now this daughter has been turning to her laptop to track her own spending using an electronic spreadsheet. There are a lot of young people who feel really comfortable using their laptops and their smartphones, tablets to track and control their money.
HANSEN: So, new technologies can help them get off to a better financial start?
GEEWAX: Sure. It really can be helpful to be able to log in, for example, and check a credit card website any time to see how much money you've already spent this week. But, of course, it isn't just about the technology. You first have to understand why is it important to keep track of that debt. You need to appreciate just how punishing all those fees and the interest payments can be.
HANSEN: And that's what we mean by financial literacy; just being able to read the bill and your financial statements so that you understand what's happening with your money.
HANSEN: Do these financial websites and classes really have much impact?
GEEWAX: It's hard to believe this but student loan debt now surpasses all credit card debt in America. So, you know, young people can take advantage of new forms of help, like mobile banking options and these budgeting websites. But in the end what they really need is what every generation has always needed and that's the ability to understand their financial environment and have the wisdom to make smart choices about borrowing and saving.
HANSEN: Marilyn Geewax is NPR's senior business editor. The five-part series Money Counts will be airing this week on MORNING EDITION. Marilyn, thank you very much.
GEEWAX: You're welcome, Liane. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.