Teaching kids to save

School Banking Program at Martha’s Vineyard Bank is paying big dividends.

Walter Prescott of Chilmark Elementary School won a Fire tablet as part of the School Savings Program. Patti Leighton is at right. — Courtesy Martha's Vineyard Bank

In 1988, on Patti Leighton’s second day of work at the Martha’s Vineyard Bank, she put a note in the suggestion box: “Why don’t we have a savings program at school?” She saw many people coming into the bank looking for help with their finances, and she thought that good financial habits should be something that start early.

In 1993, Leighton was introduced to Sherry Avena, then president of Save for America, a program backed by the Department of Education, and the plan fell into place. “I ran with the idea of bringing School Bank Day back to the classrooms for a consistent weekly way to form a healthy relationship with money,” she said.

Leighton sold the idea to the Martha’s Vineyard Superintendent of Schools and the Island principals. Ultimately she spoke to the PTO groups on the Island, because for the program to work, it relied on volunteers — “and the parents have been absolutely fabulous,” she said.

Today, the program has 1,200 individual accounts in seven schools on the Island and five schools in Falmouth. And they’re on track to hit their goal of $1.5 million in total savings. That’s a lot of lunch money.

Learning about money is something most kids are not taught by their parents. One little girl Leighton talked to said, “If my mom needs money, she just goes to the wall.” By the wall, Leighton explained, she meant she goes to the ATM … that was her concept of where money came from: “I tell them their parents have to work very hard to make money, and it feels good to earn your own money.”

It’s a message kids can relate to. “It never ceases to amaze me about how kids earning their own money can empower them to do a chore at home or start their own business by opening a lemonade stand, or to recycle bottles or cans for cash,” Leighton said.

On the Vineyard, the kids’ savings programs start at kindergarten and go through eighth grade — in Falmouth they go through sixth grade. “When the kids are out of junior high,” Leighton says, “we introduce them to different ways to invest. For instance, we give them a good rate on a CD to encourage them to buy in.” As the kids get older they start to have summer jobs, and the program teaches them to save for their goals. In high school they’re introduced to a checking account and an ATM card, so the program grows along with the kids.

From the outset, the kids are taught that the key to financial planning is consistency. The school year is generally between 33 and 36 weeks long, and the kids are encouraged to make a contribution every week.
If a student saves 90 percent of the weeks, he or she becomes a Steady Saver, and if more than 90 percent of the weeks, he or she becomes a Super Saver. Then at the end at the end of the year, students are presented with a certificate, often in an assembly in front of the whole school, along with a $10 deposit for Super Savers and a $5 deposit for Steady Savers.

If you’re a Super or Steady Saver every year of your elementary school career from kindergarten through eighth grade, the Massachusetts state treasurer, Deborah Goldberg, presents you with a citation.

“It is impressive,” says Leighton, “that there is such a strong commitment to achieve this citation from the commonwealth of Massachusetts that supports the banks savings program.”

There are other incentives for savings as well. Kids who save every week for a year can win a Fire Kindle through schoolsavings.com, a national contest. Martha’s Vineyard Bank holds an essay contest each year in honor of National Teach Children to Save Day. And “Lights, Camera, Save!” is a video contest where teens can create videos about savings and win up to $5,000.

Leighton sent me an email recently, saying, “I love the vocabulary used in this, it’s still pertinent and just as important today.” It was from the “Report on the School Savings Bank Work,” from the Oak Bluffs Town Report in 1911.

The mission of the School Savings Bank System, it read, “is to establish the savings system in schools through the land; to give every child initial instruction in practical thrift; and to encourage in all walks of life, happy economy and providence that both time and money may be applied to the higher uses …”

As true today as it ever was.