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Program helps youth learn money skills

By Bonnie Coblentz

MISSISSIPPI STATE -- American teens spend an average of $104 a week and qualify for credit cards, but they don't necessarily know how to handle financial opportunity.

According to the Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy, high school graduates have the earning potential to make more than $1 million in their lifetime. When freshmen enter college, most have at least two credit cards, and by the time they graduate, they are carrying $20,402 in education loan and credit card debt.

Susan Cosgrove, family resource management area agent with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said these numbers indicate young people have a lot to learn about wise financial management.

"Young people have money to spend and credit available to them, but unfortunately, many can't handle this responsibility and get into financial trouble that takes them years to recover from," Cosgrove said.

The MSU Extension Service designed a program to help young people learn sound money management principles in a setting many are familiar with -- the mall. Since 2001, Cosgrove has teamed with other Extension agents to offer Mall Mania, a shopping education program that combines fun with learning.

So far, the Extension Service has offered the program in Meridian at Bonita Lakes Mall, but Cosgrove hopes to expand it to other malls in other parts of the state.

"We start with lectures in a classroom setting and teach them shopping basics such as what type of stores are available, items in a basic wardrobe, how to coordinate clothes and dress for certain occasions, shopping for sales and methods of payment," Cosgrove said.

After the shopping basics lecture, the youth are divided into small groups. Adult volunteers take each group to stores in the mall to reinforce the lessons. Young people learn such things as how to determine the quality of a garment, correct clothing fit, fabric selection and how to read a label.

Then it's back to the classroom for final shopping instructions. Young people are given a list of clothes to shop for and a limit of $150 in play money to "spend." No purchases are made, but the young people use a form to keep track of their "spending."

"They have to get two prices for each item they are looking for," Cosgrove said. "They write down brand name, price, fiber content when appropriate, care label instructions and total cost. Then they indicate which is the best buy."

Youth have to shop for a pair of jeans, a skirt or dress pants, sandals, a dress shirt, shorts and a T-shirt.

Extension agents must contact the mall and individual stores within the mall for permission before conducting a class. Cosgrove praised the mall and vendors for their willingness to cooperate with the young people's lessons.

"It's important for young people to learn good management because they have money to spend and they're going to spend it. They need to learn how to get the most out of it," Cosgrove said.

She said some young people "spent" much more than they were allotted, while others used only about half to get the required items.

"Teens need to learn to make their money go as far as they can so they can buy quality items for the least amount of money," Cosgrove said. "This exercise helps them see that you don't have to spend a lot of money to get quality items."

Laura Alexander, 13, is a member of the Good Luck 4-H Club in Newton. She and her sister, Anna, have both participated in Mall Mania for three years. She said the program has helped her learn how to make educated decisions when spending her money.

"I look a lot harder at clothes now to see how they fit me," Alexander said. "I've learned that just because the clothes are cheap, they're not necessarily better."

For more information on youth money management or Mall Mania, contact Susan Cosgrove at (601) 635-2268.

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Released: Aug. 4, 2003
Contact: Susan Cosgrove, (601) 635-2268

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