How the toss of a coin determined my fate

Hello! I have returned from my final big trip of the year, and I’ve resumed working behind the scenes here at Get Rich Slowly. Soon, new articles will begin to appear on this site.

Oh, wait. Here’s a new article now!

On my most recent trip, I happened to tell the same story twice to two different groups. In doing so, I realized that it’s a story I’ve never told here. That’s unfortunate. It’s about an event that had a profound impact on the course of my life — and my finances.

To bide the time while I work on longer articles, today I’d like to share how my fate was decided by the literal toss of a coin.

Going to College

My parents never pushed higher education on my brothers and me. Both my father and mother had attended church schools briefly — Goshen College for him, Brigham Young University for her — but neither one graduated. My uncle got a math degree from a local junior college, and my cousin Duane got a business degree from yet another church school.

Growing up, I can’t remember that college was ever discussed in depth. It came up in conversation now and then, but there was never any expectation that my brothers and I would go.

But: I was a nerd. I hung out with other nerds. I read and I wrote. I entered math contests for fun. My favorite movies were about college and about college professors. I romanticized college life (and still do today).

Mitch and J.D. were (and are) nerds

Mitch and J.D., nerds in 1984, nerds in 2019

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Financial Education for Fifth Graders

I’ve finally overcome my fear of speaking in public (though speaking in front of 1000 people at next month’s World Domination Summit may bring that fear back) and have actually found that I enjoy talking to various groups about money. I think the key is not to over-prepare.

In early May, for instance, I made a presentation for Adelante Mujeres, a group working to strengthen the local latina community. I spoke to about 25 immigrant women about budgeting, and listened to their financial concerns. (Their top worry? How to send their kids to college!) This was my first personal finance presentation in Spanish, and I loved it.

And last week, my young friend Ethan sent me email asking if I could speak to him and his classmates about personal finance. On Wednesday, I visited Memorial Elementary School in rural McMinnville to answer (and to ask) questions about money. It was a blast.

Mr. Widmer’s Class
Ethan’s teacher, Mr. Widmer, has recently become interested in personal finance. He’s read books like Rich Dad, Poor Dad and The Total Money Makeover and has been applying their lessons to his own life. He’s also been trying to teach some of these personal finance concepts to his class of fifth-graders.

For instance, the day before I spoke to his kids, the class did a debt simulation. From what I understand, here’s how it worked:

    • Mr. Widmer had small candies for “sale”. They were priced at one candy for 20 Pride Paws. (Throughout the year, the kids have been earning Pride Paws for good behavior. They’re sort of like the school currency and normally are redeemed for pencils, etc.)


    • If a student didn’t have enough Pride Paws to buy a piece of candy, she could write an IOU.


    • Students could take as much candy as they wanted, as long as they paid with Pride Paws or IOUs.


    • Not all of the children had the same number of Pride Paws. Some had many to start with (and were effectively rich) and some only had a few (and were effectively poor).


  • As the day progressed, Mr. Widmer asked the kids to pay for their candy. If they didn’t have the Pride Paws to do so, he “re-possessed” things, such as their chairs or clipboards.

Those are the basics, though I’m certain I’m missing lots of detail.

What’s interesting is that my young friend Ethan turned himself into a one-percenter. “I realized everyone was desperate,” he told me. He still had some Pride Paws left over, so he began trading them for things. He started by trading for pencils and erasers, but then he traded the pencils and erasers for toys. And even for $1.65. He parlayed his extra Pride Paws into a small fortune.

Note: Ethan’s story reminds me of the guy who traded one red paperclip for a house.


Fifth Graders


Questions FROM Me
When I visited Mr. Widmer’s class, I had half an hour to chat with the kids about money. I thought about preparing something, but as I mentioned earlier, I’m finding I do much better if I just go with the flow. I started by asking the kids some questions about their own financial lives.

First, I asked the class of 25 students how many of them received an allowance. About two-thirds of the class raised their hands.

Next, I asked how much their parents paid them. The going rate seems to be about $4-5 per week, though some kids are paid monthly. Colton, for instance, gets $20 per month, but there are conditions attached to it. “If I punch my brother or something, I get a dollar less,” he told me. Sounds reasonable.

And what are the kids saving for? Well, most of them are saving for college. Some kids have other long-term goals. For instance, Bella told me, “I’m saving for a car. My parents said I should save for a car before I save for college.” One girl told me she had saved money for a year so that she could buy her father’s old iPad from him.

Finally, I asked the kids if any of them had found ways to make extra money. I was surprised at how many said “yes”. Parker volunteered that he and his friend have started a lawn-mowing business. “We made business cards and put them in mailboxes around the neighborhood,” he said. “People call us and pay us five or ten dollars to mow their yard.” I love it!

Questions FOR Me
After I asked questions, it was their turn to pose questions to me. (On Friday, I shared the question Hannah asked me: “How much money do you have?“)

Some of the kids had prepared questions, and many were the same sorts of questions I get from adults at other events: How did you get out of debt? What books do you recommend? What’s the best way to save money?

One student asked me what I consider the most difficult question in all of personal finance. Nobody has a good answer to this: “If you’re in debt, how do you save money?” The obvious answer is to spend less than you earn and then use the extra money to pay off your debt and begin saving. That’s what I did, and that’s what many of you have done, as well.

What makes this question so difficult, though, are the extra factors that come into play. Like poverty. What if you’re poor and in debt. Then what? How do you save money if you don’t have any to start with and you’re digging deeper in the hole. This is a problem that’s plagued people for centuries, and the only answer seems to be: You still have to find a way to spend less than you earn. If your income is low, that means there’s only one thing you can do: Make more money.

Laura furthered the conversation by telling us about her own situation. “My family doesn’t have much money,” she said. “Both of my sisters need braces and we’re probably going to have to go into debt for them. What should we do?” I didn’t have an answer for her.

My favorite question of the day came from a quiet girl named Ashely. She came up to me after class and said, “Can I ask you a question?

“Sure,” I said.

“Is it okay to save for just no reason?”

“Of course!” I said.

“Good,” she said. “Because I have $100 or $200 saved and I don’t know what I’m going to do with it.”

Interlude: During the Q&A session, Alex raised his hand. When I called on him, he said, “This question’s for Mr. Widmer. Mr. Widmer, what made you start teaching? Was it for the money?” I chuckled because I don’t know any teachers who are doing it for the money. And Mr. Widmer isn’t either. “No, Alex,” he said. “I’m doing it because I love to teach.”


The Bottom Line
I don’t think my visit to Mr. Widmer’s fifth-grade class will produce any future millionaires. But I hope that the brief question-and-answer session at least gave them some food for thought.

At one point during our discussion, I tried to explain how interest on credit cards works. “Imagine you buy a piece of candy for twenty Pride Paws,” I said. “You don’t have twenty Pride Paws today, but you promise to pay that much later. Well, when you pay interest, you have to pay more than twenty Pride Paws. Maybe for each day you take to pay, you might owe two extra Pride Paws. So, if you take five days to pay, you might owe thirty Pride Paws instead of twenty, all for the same piece of candy.”

If even a few of them grasped that concept, I did my job.

Meanwhile, I think Mr. Widmer is to be commended. It’s outstanding that he’s teaching fifth-graders fundamental personal finance concepts. That’s a tough job. I’m not sure I could do it. But the kids really seemed to be enjoying the subject, and I’m willing to bet that they’ll all be better money managers in the future because their teacher spent a few hours getting them to think about how money works.

Six steps to learning difficult subjects quickly

Throughout our lives we encounter situations where we need to acquire new skills. Sometimes it’s nice to have a method for acquiring the basics quickly. Paul’s Tips has a technique for learning difficult subjects quickly.

Here’s a strategy I’ve found useful for learning dry and difficult material quickly. At various times, I’ve used it to build up my knowledge of subjects like economics, investing, writing and computer programming languages. Some people have been surprised at how fast I can learn these kinds of skills, but I think anyone can do it with the right plan. Of course, you can use this to teach yourself interesting things as well, but most people don’t have any problem learning stuff that’s fun.

His steps:

  1. Bombard yourself with information — Don’t try to slowly digest the material you’re trying to learn; immerse yourself in it. Read it quickly, so that you’re drowned by it.
  2. Identify the key concepts and make them yours — Try to comprehend the Big Picture. Don’t worry about the details. Recognize the broad overview so that you can understand the fundamentals of the subject.
  3. Only memorize what absolutely has to be memorized — Don’t fret over details that can be referenced later. Most subjects have specific facts that you must know. Learn them. But don’t worry about details that can be obtained through reference works when needed.
  4. Get some feedback on your understanding — Find some sort of comprehensive practice exam and take it. You will probably do poorly, but from your results you’ll be able to tell what you learned and what slipped your mind. Try to correct your mistakes as soon as possible.
  5. Bombard yourself with some more information, but from another source — This is the key step. Find some other source — not necessarily another textbook — and use it to glean as much information as possible. Maybe use multiple sources. Try to focus on your weak points after your first reading.
  6. Get some real-world feedback — Find a community fluent in the knowledge you’ve tried to learn. See how well you fit in. For example, if you’ve tried to learn a language, see how well you can interact with others who speak the smae language.

I’ve never tried to acquire skills with this or any similar method, yet I recognize that it might be useful in certain circumstances. It doesn’t seem appropriate for a subject that you need to learn thoroughly — your college major, or something germane to your career — but it might be useful in situations where you’re trying to acquire secondary knowledge.