female high school teacher taking class

The Ontario government has taken an important step toward improved financial literacy within the province. The recently released elementary school math curriculum, which will be implemented in September, includes new mandatory financial literacy learning in Grades 1 to 8. Far beyond the previous curriculum, in which financial literacy concepts were limited to a basic understanding of money and coins, the new curriculum includes a much more in-depth understanding of the value and use of money over time, how to manage finances to ensure self-efficacy and the value of budgeting.

Financial literacy is a fundamental life skill. Learning basic financial concepts from a young age helps build the foundational knowledge needed to make essential day-to-day financial decisions throughout one’s lifetime. Research from the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada and many other sources has long showed the need for improved financial literacy in Canada, and as the onus of responsibility for financial wellness continues to shift to individuals, taking concrete steps to make this happen is more essential now than ever.

The need for greater financial confidence becomes especially clear during periods of economic uncertainty, like the current one. The Covid-19 pandemic has taken a significant toll on many Canadians’ personal financial situations, particularly for those who have lost their jobs or had their working hours reduced. In fact, FP Canada’s recent Financial Stress Index shows that even during the pandemic, money – not health – remains the number one source of stress in Canadians’ lives.

Building better fundamental financial skills, and developing a stronger connection for students to their own financial situations, will go a long way toward helping Canadians take control of their finances. By cultivating basic money management and budgeting skills, including developing responsible spending habits, for example, students can learn to accumulate savings and better prepare themselves for future financial setbacks or emergencies.

These foundational competencies should be taught in schools, and from an early age — no different from math or language skills. The implementation of financial self-efficacy skills development in the school system is long overdue.

The biggest hurdle to the success of the new curriculum, however, is developing the competencies among the teaching community to teach these fundamental skills. Ensuring these financial concepts are taught by people who have a solid grounding in personal finance themselves, so that they can teach the concepts clearly and effectively, will be imperative to ensuring students walk away with a solid grasp on this important topic.

The greatest challenge of introducing financial capability skills into the school curriculum is determining in which part of the curriculum these skills should reside. While there is no clear answer to this question, Ontario has chosen to incorporate financial literacy into its math curriculum. This may pose a challenge, as math departments can deal with the mechanics of financial calculations, but may not be the best place for students to develop the “money relationship” skills they so badly need. Personal finance isn’t exclusively about numbers and calculations — it’s about managing the financial aspects of one’s life through effective decision-making and proper priorities management. Helping students understand that from a young age could help make the topic of money more accessible and less intimidating, which could ultimately make a positive difference in students’ long-term relationship with money. To fully realize this goal, governments would be well-served to treat this curriculum as a specialized subject, led by teachers highly skilled in financial education.

Beyond the most basic financial concepts, a closer look at the new Ontario curriculum shows that through Grades 6, 7 and 8, students will learn about financial planning concepts such as setting financial goals and mapping out steps to achieve them. If executed effectively and taught in a way that is clear and engaging to students by faculty experts, this could be a game-changer for students’ future financial well-being. Instilling in youth the importance of planning — and making the learning relevant — could go a long way in getting them to take greater responsibility for their own financial health and creating a new, positive relationship between youth and money to set them up for a more financially secure future.

Financial well-being is an important part of our overall well-being, and knowledge is a critical first step on the journey to financial health. By enabling our youth to develop a broad-based understanding of financial concepts from a young age, Ontario’s new curriculum shows promise. While this is a great start, the trick is in the execution.