OPINION | SAVE YOURSELF: It’s never too early — or late — to use financial literacy for savings

Twenty-six million grown adults just gambled on the Super Bowl.

Most new gamblers are young adults in their early 20s, with men twice as likely as women to gamble. Gambling lights up a part of our brain that is obsessed with winning, even at the risk of losing. Unfortunately, an estimated 7 million adults suffer from gambling addictions, a number that is expected to grow as gambling becomes more prevalent and more electronically easy.

The only answer I can see is financial literacy; more specifically, financial literacy built on teaching kids how and why to save. Scratch that -- financial literacy obsessed with ingraining savings behaviors.

Picture this scene. A precious little pre-kindergarten student, who we will call Alex, comes to school with an envelope of money that he spent the last "a lot of" days saving up. He timidly walks up to a bank teller station almost perfect for his tiny height. Behind the counter a fifth-grader from his school smiles and collects his money, counts it and then hands him back a deposit receipt.

Little Alex probably has no idea where that money went, but he sure knows a big kid thought it was a great idea and gave him a lot of praise for doing it. Alex will save up again for the next bank day for sure. Maybe just to impress the big kids.

But just like a retirement plan, Alex's savings will be matched, and one day when he does understand what a savings account is, not from a textbook, but from the experience of accumulating money in that account, he will probably be ruined for life. Maybe enough to say "no thanks" to placing a sports bet even if all his buddies are in on the action.

Last week, Gibbs Magnet Elementary school in Little Rock opened its first bank branch partnership with First Security Bank. Each student can open an account and get a starter deposit of $5 donated from First Security, and then every dollar he or she saves will be matched by an anonymous donor, $0.50 on the dollar up to $50. Eighty-five accounts had been opened by Thursday morning, including Alex's. That teller station? It's real, built to scale for an elementary school, and funded by a grant from the Arkansas Securities Department.

This is financial literacy at work. Rather than just a book or a lecture, it is the experience of delaying gratification and saving into an FDIC insured savings account. It's learning to trust the banking system. I would argue that the real magic is not the account and maybe not even the parents and school supporting kids to save. Rather it's the community and social acceptance around saving that is organically happening with the kids. You can already see the oldest kids as tellers creating a supportive dynamic around saving that no adult could replicate.

Sadly, I missed the grand opening of this bank on Feb. 8. My fifth grade Gibbs Magnet student, Marco, was one of the student tellers, and my first grade daughter was one of the kids proudly showing up with a white envelope with her first deposit. I wish I could have seen it in person, but I had to settle for the wildly enthusiastic second-hand accounts.

It's not lost on me that during the grand opening I was in the air, returning from the Physician Wellness and Financial Literacy Conference in Orlando.

I taught a session titled "How to Put My Real Magic Number to Work Building Wealth." In layman's terms, it could have just said "How and How Much to Save."

The day before I went on, terrible fears started to creep in. Am I really about to go speak to a room full of physicians on something so basic as just saving money? What if no one elects to come to my session? Or, worse, what if people come and feel that they learned nothing?

To my relief, not only was there standing room only, after over two hours of Q&A I had to beg off to take a break.

Now, let's think about this. During the life cycle of a physician's education who would be responsible to teach that physician how much to save and where to put the savings? When you think that a physician must be prepared to pay themselves their own salary in retirement for as long as 30 years, the challenge looks daunting. Many physicians need to be saving a minimum of 25%-30% of their gross pay to afford retirement, and I can attest that that is largely not happening.

The physicians that packed a session on calculating a savings rate probably didn't have a bank branch at their elementary school teaching and reinforcing savings habits. They didn't likely have a class on saving in high school or college or even a talk on how to calculate an appropriate savings rate when graduating medical school.

Saving is the ultimate financial literacy practice. It is not just an educational topic. It can be integrated into the classroom in the form of delayed gratification. Other financial topics pale by comparison. If we save enough, so many other things will fall into place. It's a lot easier to invest in the stock market, for instance, if you have money to invest. It's a lot easier to acquire an appropriately sized car or house payment if we know how much we need to save each month first.

It's a lot easier to gamble less when we have savings priorities for our money.

Sarah Catherine Gutierrez is founder, partner and CEO of Aptus Financial in Little Rock. She is also author of the book "But First, Save 10: The One Simple Money Move That Will Change Your Life," published by Et Alia Press. Contact her at [email protected].

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