A Class, At Last!

Posted on June 20, 2012

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A few days ago, my sister, while burping her baby, casually mentioned over her shoulder that I should read Ellen Roseman.  This writer for the Toronto Star has long established herself as a consumer-protection advocate as well as a promoter of Financial Literacy.  Incidentally, Ms. Roseman was holding a “Financial Literacy Workshop” that I ended up attending last night!  Well, wouldntchaknow!

From 5:30-9:30 in the evening was going to be a juggernaut of a time-block at Ryerson’s Chang School of Business, and so I chowed down on a giant lunch at 2pm in preparation.  Details stated that oatmeal cookies would be provided, so I was pretty confident that my easily-spaced-outedness would be held in check at socially acceptable levels.  And this was a totally free event, which in Toronto = gatecrasher, so you gotta be ready!

And sure enough, upon arriving a bit early, the room looked like a time-lapse sequence of rockstar anticipation!

Before the presentation, I quickly introduced myself to Ms. Roseman, who instantly (!?) recognized me because she had watched that TEDxTeachers talk video I did (albeit “about half way through”) on Financial Literacy.  (I should say that I had stalked her beforehand via email–that’s how she knew of me at all).  That was enough, apparently: I hadn’t planned for it, but I had the exact same Marge-Simpson-esque hair piled on my head just like I did in the video, thus marking myself as a carcicature.  A rare and fortuitous ‘do!  But it was 32 degrees, what else was I supposed to do with this hair boa of mine?  Ooh, I even wore a green dress!

ALRIGHTY!  Enough with the pre-amble!  Here is some of what I learned (more to be compiled properly in the “Solutions” page in the top bar, some time in the non-committal future):

1.  GET THIS HANDOUT that basically has everything that was talked about (I don’t know why you have to order it for free–why didn’t they just make it a downloadable PDF?!).  As well, apparently, Ms. Roseman’s 4-hour talk will be online somewhere as audio (will update here if / when I find out).

2. DON’T BE A NEGLIGENT CONSUMER:  Ms. Roseman has an encyclopedic memory about every single case and detail, it seems, from every Torontoian who has ever written to her complaining about unknowingly getting billed for Persian TV to $9,000 roaming charges, while travelling abroad.  And this is why she is loved by her readership:  she will call up those offending companies on your behalf and ask “what’s up?”, leveraging her name to out these weird, siphon-y practices.

Well, what’s this got to do with Financial Literacy?  For me, since I’ve lived in Tokyo for the past half-decade, none of these details exactly applied to me, but Ms. Roseman had a zillion examples of how being a more vigilant consumer could save you thousands of dollars–and the overall message was clear: Audit your bills!  Read the fine print!  Call up the Retention department of a company and negotiate a better plan!  To me, it meant that Canada (and everywhere) has a hugely predatory business culture of preying on the Financially Illiterate and Ignorant among us.  It is necessary (and exhausting) to fight back because it is an appalling amount of money of ours that fuels this Ignorance-based feast by douche-bag companies.  It solidified in me that Educational mandates to teach FL and Ethics in society are the way to go!

3. TALK ABOUT MONEY:  As a “Workshop”, last night’s event might have been billed incorrectly (no pun intended) because it was more like a lecture.  Granted, lots of audience members had things to ask Ms. Roseman–though all kinda orbiting around her expertise of consumer-watchdog issues centered around their individual consumer complaints.  This got to be a little had-to-be-there type issues.  However, at one point, it was interesting to hear of what some people’s financial goals were:

– to save enough to go to the Galapagos Islands

– to buy a franchise, like Starbucks

– to own a home as a single person (in Toronto!!)

– to pay off student debt

I wished for more of this kind of group, relatable shared dialogue.  In fact, at the beginning of the workshop people raised their hand to answer “Why is Financial Literacy a problem?” with: that it’s because of the culture of NOT sharing or talking about our financial issues with each other that we are rather clueless.  But last night wasn’t the time or place for some reason–and no clues as to when or how we might have a follow-up dialogue.  So afterward, I emailed Ms. Roseman and the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada (FCAC) who co-hosted it to say it would be great to snowball the momentum from last night’s crowd with a what-did-we-learn.  Actually, a man tried to strike up a chat with me on the way to the streetcar after the event, but alas, it arrived too soon.

For now, I will get my 20-30-something friends together over a picnic to discuss!  I sent out an invite over facebook.

4. PRACTICE SETTING ASIDE MONEY: For those of us interested in, say, buying a house, for 6 months, we should try setting aside what a mortgage payment / insurance / bills / taxes associated with home-owning would be and watch ourselves sweat!  If we can hack it and have the discipline for it, we’re good to go!  This was so common sense, I was amazed at myself for being amazed at its simplicity.

5. SMALL STUFF MATTERS: If you’re the type to need a designer coffee every day, go out for lunch or drive everywhere, use random ATMs without understanding how your bank charges you fees, pay for extras on your phone or cable bill that you don’t use or know about–all these incidences of nickels and dimes DO add up to thousands of dollars a year.  It’s a whole body / lifestyle makeover if you really want to build that ‘nother Starbucks in your ‘hood or visit those giant turtles off the coast of Ecuador!

6. to 1001. WELL, YOU HAD TO BE THERE:  At 9:30, my brain was down and out for the count.  There seemed to be so much common sense, that in my 30s , no less, was news to me!  This was somehow quite depressing.  The vacuum of my non-existent Financial Education was sucking my blood sugar dry.  I was one of the first to head for the elevators (we were banned from asking questions afterward–understandably after a 4-hour lecture).  I felt overwhelmed at the prospect of having to spend lunch hours haggling with cable service providers and telecomm companies (one woman said she had called for 6 months and only made any progress when she started crying to them), to walk a narrow path with fees and hidden costs lurking in tiny print everywhere…to wait years for any investment to ever compound appreciably.  I felt exhausted at living in a predatory society, at being middle-class, at the prospect that if I dare step off the hamster wheel, 65-year-old me will live poorly.

Hmm, well, this is a low note to leave on.  I did recognize that knowing this much more is helpful.  I know that living without regard to the costs of things is dangerous.  But I didn’t recognize HOW dangerous.  It is all the more reason to be awake.  In our years of being asleep at the wheel, the prospect of vigilance is certainly daunting.

OH!  And one more thing, at the end, one attendee asked a really interesting question: If online banking can help us save on fees, and identity theft is one way to screw us over financially (a big theme in Ms. Roseman’s talk), what happens to our security when we use wifi, at say, a Starbucks to send our password?  No one, including Ms. Roseman was quite sure of the answer, but one man who ran a golf course which offered wifi to customers said: he could see everything (!!!!!!)

But also some good news: during the break, I spoke with a woman from the FCAC and she let me know that November is Financial Literacy month in Canada.  And that the Ministry of Education in Ontario has mandated Financial Literacy for grades 4-12!!  It is outlined here in the Ontario Curriculum Documents.

UPDATE: upon checking the Gr. 4-12 documents out, I have to say, that this is basically a remix of curricula from Math or the Arts and pushed through the round hole of “Financial Literacy”.  The plan is for teachers to relate all subject matters (sometimes) to Financial Literacy, and then it will stick!  I guess it can work!  But, to what extent would a teacher go to relate everything back to Financial Literacy?  How is that ensured across a school?  How can we check for understanding among students?  There is no assessment component to this.  Here is an example of how a Gr. 6 teacher can “tie in the Arts” to FL:

(UPDATE: for the more cynical, I do a bigger eye-roll of a review here).


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