These days, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the cost of just about everything has skyrocketed.
A bag of chips. A smart phone case. Shipping fees on a purchase from your favorite online store. An Uber ride.
The effects of inflation — the rise in prices and decline in purchasing power over time — are pervasive, especially for teens and students who might not yet know the exact causes and impacts of such a crisis.
And a lack of formal education on all this is driving a certain sensitivity and interest in gaining financial literacy for themselves, as well as questions into why things are the way they are.
Teens like Betania Demisse, 16, of Chicago are especially taking notice.
Demisse’s mother works in elderly care and her father is a taxi driver, and while her family is getting by, she’s constantly thinking about the amount her parents have to dish out to fully pay her private school tuition each month despite receiving tuition assistance, all while the cost of gas, food and now their rent have increased.
While being lower-income than her classmates, her parents are also immigrants, so Demisse constantly thinks about how much her parents have overcome, what that has afforded her, and all that they all have left to learn about making it financially in America.
“We don’t come from a lot of money so when inflation starts, we’re the first ones to notice,” Demisse said. “Like, wasn’t bread 50 cents cheaper two years ago?”
Demisse values the opportunities that come with living in the United States, but can’t help but notice the extra burdens placed on families like her own.
“With inflation you can’t live anywhere comfortably now if you’re not part of the upper class,” she said.
Some teens are turning their observations into action.
Isaac Hertensetein, a 16 year old from rural Indiana, saw the effects in his own community. But, he’d grown up understanding that inequality existed in his hometown of Greencastle, a college town, where many of his classmates qualified for free or reduced price lunch.
“I’ve grown up in the town seeing friends and classmates who struggled to put food on the table and are unable to do fun, normal kid things,” Hertenstein said.
COVID-19 only made things worse.
In just the past few months, Rachael Kim, a 16-year-old from Orange County, Calif., has amassed a following of over 30,000 followers on TikTok, not for lifestyle inspiration, boy trouble rants, or make-up tutorials like she originally expected, but for her finance guidance aimed at others her age.
When one of her first finance videos blew up, she knew she’d struck a chord.
“I realized that there’s actually people interested in this and they’d like to hear me talk about it,” Kim said. “I started posting more frequently and then I just shifted my entire account into a finance TikTok.”
While she’s always had an interest in business, it wasn’t until COVID-19 that she and her parents, who are both first-generation immigrants from South Korea, became interested in investing, and therefore, personal finance.
It was after noticing the frenzy around Gamestop that her parents started thinking, “What’s going on?” and began investing. The whole family began discussing personal finance, and Kim expanded her skills by watching educational YouTube videos.
As young as they are, both Kim and Hertenstein know that they can’t keep what they’ve learned to themselves.
“There’s something up with the system if they don’t teach us,” Kim said. “We’ve got to teach ourselves because we’ve got to look out for ourselves.”
Over 30 states across the United States currently don’t require a financial literacy course in public schools. And as teens like Demisse, Kim and Hertenstein look toward college and independence, not having these skills risks widening an economic gap.
Back in Chicago, despite attending a private school, Demisse has yet to learn any personal finance in her classes as she nears graduation. She’s taken to saving her money — a piece of financial advice she’s picked up from her parents.
“It’s hard to gauge how much you don’t know when there’s no class,” she said. “I just keep on thinking like that’s something for adult me to think about, but the more I put something off the more stressful it becomes.”
In Greencastle, Hertenstein wants to address that concern.
His high school requires a semester of economics to graduate, he believes having only a week focused on personal finance isn’t enough and that high school is too late, especially in a world where a large portion of economic inequality “is fueled by a lack of financial literacy,” he said, pointing to a study from the University of Pennsylvania.
That’s why, during his freshman year in the fall of 2020, Hertenstein began creating Students Teaching Finance, a curriculum where youth his age teach younger kids basic financial concepts in partnership with schools and in the classroom setting.
While he started it as a community initiative, he’s taught over 550 kids Greencastle alone and has since expanded the curriculum to nine states and recently turned it into an official nonprofit.
“I knew I wanted to just go into classrooms and teach these kids financial literacy lessons in like a peer-to-peer model,” he said.
He has also begun advocating for financial literacy reform and legislation aimed at classrooms in discussions with leaders in his community and at the state level. He also advocates for parents to talk to their kids, as he’s equipped with the research and knowledge that financial literacy can combat economic inequality and gaps in education nationwide.
Social media savvy Kim also wants to spread the word, but has decided she wants to keep taking the virtual route.
As she sees it, young people can be reached at an amount she barely even imagined was possible prior to TikTok. Next year, she even hopes to launch her own newsletter, with the overall goal of letting young people know they can handle personal finance.
“We’re young, so we have a lot of time for investments and saving our money,” she said. “There’s a very large stigma around financial literacy that it’s only for people with money. But I really want to stress to everyone that it’s really accessible for people my age.”
Anika Exum is a multimedia journalist, writer and producer currently based in Nashville, Tennessee with an interest in covering the perspectives, experiences and voice of youth everywhere.