This time of year is filled with many “firsts” for young people throughout Maryland. Recent high school and college graduates may have just filed their first tax returns as independent adults. Those getting ready to graduate in a few weeks are looking for their first jobs. They may be getting ready to rent their first apartment or buy their first car. Others may be using a credit card for the first time.

Unfortunately, the excitement of those milestones is often overshadowed by unpleasant realities. Too many young adults are surprised that additional tax payments are owed on April 15, or that they don’t have money for an apartment’s security deposit, or that buying a car also means paying for auto insurance, or that using a credit card means paying for more than the cost of goods if you don’t make payments on time.

The decisions young people make as they become independent can impact their financial health and success their entire lives. It’s hard to recover from significant and early debt, and it’s hard to change ingrained habits developed early in adulthood.

The 2022 Personal Finance Index reported the lowest financial literacy among American adults since at least 2017. And those with low financial literacy are found to be six times more likely to struggle making ends meet. Other studies have shown that struggles with finances extend far beyond bank accounts and exacerbate community problems, including domestic disputes, crime, homelessness and displacement. Access to opportunity and pervasive inequity are all tied directly to money — who has it, who understands it and who is using it.

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We, as parents, educators and community members have a responsibility to do something about it. Our schools teach algebra and chemistry, poetry and world history. Isn’t teaching our children about personal finance — developing skills they’ll use every day of their lives — just as important?

We need to make sure all students graduate with that knowledge so that they become financially capable adults. While personal finance is required to be taught through the Maryland Personal Finance Standards, there is no uniformity to how the standards are implemented and no accountability ensuring that students master the concepts.

Legislation introduced in the 2023 General Assembly would’ve required the State Board of Education to develop curriculum content for a half-credit course in financial literacy. The legislation called for county boards of education to implement the content and make the course available to students in every public high school. The companion bills failed to advance in the Maryland Senate and House of Delegates. For years, legislation has been drafted, but not passed, for all Maryland school districts to require that students take a class in personal finance.

But we don’t need to wait for legislation to prepare students for a successful financial future. Parents can encourage teachers and principals to offer this content. Educators can use resources from organizations such as mine — the Maryland Council on Economic Education — for engaging activities that reinforce this learning. Professionals in financial fields can consider how they can play a role in supporting our children’s learning.

We can transform the trajectories of Maryland’s young people by helping them develop the understanding and habits to thoughtfully and successfully manage their financial lives.

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This transformation starts in the classroom. Eight Maryland counties now require students to take a course in personal finance. They’re introduced to the reasons and the tools to safely spend and save money, as well as budgeting and how financial markets work. Scores of schools and hundreds of educators throughout the state make learning about finance fun with engaging competitions, games and clubs that introduce students to investing and financial tools and knowledge.

April was Financial Literacy Month, a nationally recognized campaign to bring awareness to the need for more financial education. In May, we’ll celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week, where we can honor the teachers throughout Maryland who include personal finance in their curriculum.

These seasonal milestones, and the milestones that graduates will celebrate, should inspire us to make sure students are prepared to achieve their goals and make the sound financial decisions that uplift them and our community.

Julie Weaver is executive director of the Maryland Council on Economic Education.