(By Nancy Mann Jackson)
“If most people aren’t financially successful, then it makes sense to stop doing what most people do.. Just because everyone else is getting a new car every five years doesn’t mean you should.”
When East Carolina University dismissed for the semester on April 28 this year, 500 students left campus $100,000 richer.
What did these undergrads have in common?
All 500 had completed a personal finance class helmed by Mark Weitzel, Bill Pratt, and Len Rhodes—a.k.a., “The Money Professors.”
For the past five years, the trio has challenged their students to collectively squirrel away $100K over the course of a single semester—and most years, students surpass the challenge.
Weitzel first noticed the need for the course back in 1999, when he began teaching business at ECU and spotted students signing up for credit cards in exchange for pizza slices.
That slippery slope barter inspired him to launch an elective class aimed at helping undergrads grasp the realities of Money 101.
Fifteen years later the personal finance course—now taught by Weitzel, Pratt, and Rhodes—is one of the school’s most popular offerings.
Impressed by their success in preparing students for the future, we decided to call up The Money Professors for a tutorial—and have them share the top five financial lessons every new grad needs to nail.
1. Money Isn’t One-Size-Fits-All
“Our motto is that personal finance is personal,” Rhodes says.
In other words, there are no hard and fast rules that work for everybody.
“Instead, you have to learn basic financial principles—such as spending less than you earn—to make the right choices for your own situation, regardless of what others are doing,” he explains.
2. Time Is Your Biggest (Money) Ally
OK, there is one absolute that’s right for everyone: Start saving—now! In fact, the Money Professors advise all of their pupils to start putting money into a retirement plan on day one of their post-grad career life.
“Most 20-somethings say they can’t afford to do so right now,” Weitzel says. “But by starting from the first day of their first job, they’ll end up having to save a lot less in order to retire comfortably.”
3. Ditch the Joneses
At the start of each semester, the professors ask the class if they think most people are financially successful—and the students overwhelmingly say no.
“If most people aren’t financially successful, then it makes sense to stop doing what most people do,” Pratt explains. “Just because everyone else is getting a new car every five years doesn’t mean you should.”
4. Talk Money With Loved Ones
The trio actually spends a significant portion of their course discussing relationships. The reason? “You can’t divorce your life from your money,” Rhodes says. “Your finances bleed over into your spiritual, social, and relational life.”
As a result, students learn to openly discuss financial goals with siblings, parents and partners. One undergrad even told the Money Professors that when her boyfriend proposed, her answer was yes—with one caveat. He had to take their class first!
5. Expect to Make Mistakes—But Don’t Make the Mistake of Not Having a Plan
Most people spend their 20s messing up their money, their 30s trying to figure out what they did wrong, their 40s trying to dig out of the hole, and their 50s trying to catch up for retirement, Weitzel says.
“But if you focus on money now, you avoid having to focus on money later,” Rhodes says, adding that’s why he recommends grads arm themselves early on with a personalized financial plan to guide them through the decades.
“You might still mess up in your 20s,” Rhodes explains. “But you’ll have the information you need to change course quickly—so you can spend your 30s building wealth instead.”