Program helps kids manage money, debt

It’s a late weekday afternoon and best-selling author Sharon Lechter is once again giving financial advice.

Today, her target audience is quite different from the adults who purchased the “Rich Dad Poor Dad” books she co-authored with fellow Valley resident Robert Kiyosaki.

This group consists of a half-dozen young teenagers at a Phoenix branch of the Boys & Girls Clubs, and the audience is one Lechter hopes to appeal to with YOUTHpreneur, part of her new business that teaches children how to be entrepreneurs.

“I have a passion for financial literacy for families and children,” said Lechter, who left the Rich Dad Company in 2007 after disagreements with Kiyosaki and now runs Pay Your Family First. “What is happening with today’s kids is they don’t understand delayed gratification. . . . Kids want it before they even think about working for it.”

Lechter’s focus on children comes at a time when national studies show high-school and college students are plunging themselves into deep credit-card debt and having easier access to credit. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama last week threw his support behind a consumer-friendly credit-card law that eliminates tricky fine print, sudden rate increases and late fees.

The YOUTHpreneur program teaches children how to make money through gumball sales, and she’s teamed with local branches of the Boys & Girls Clubs and Fry’s Food Stores. Through the program, children learn about sales and profits by operating a candy machine at a Fry’s store.

“It was a good experience. We learned about business,” said Michael Clark, a 14-year-old from Greenway Middle School in Phoenix. “We had fun doing it, and we made some money for the Boys & Girls Club. So, it was all good.”

Lechter, of Paradise Valley, has taught the YOUTHpreneur program to about 70 children at six different Boys & Girls Clubs branches during the past year, and she’s selling the program on her Web site, youthpreneur.net.

She said working with kids brought her career full circle as the certified public accountant began focusing on financial education when her oldest son, Phillip, went off to college.

She said she thought she had taught her son to manage money, but as a freshman at Arizona State University, he quickly dug himself into a $2,500 credit-card debt.

“I was so upset, but I was more angry at myself than him,” Lechter said. “We didn’t bail him out. It took him about five years to get himself on track.”

The lesson apparently stuck because Phillip Lechter now is president of her new company, and he said the business would focus on entrepreneurship, financial education and money tips for teens and parents.

Sharon Lechter said it’s important for parents to teach their kids about financial management because college students are racking up thousands of dollars of credit-card debt and even some high-school students are using credit cards.

Sallie Mae Inc., which manages student loans, released a study this month that said nearly one-third of college students put tuition on their credit cards and the average balance for a student was $3,173.

College seniors are graduating with an average credit-card debt of $4,100, up from about $2,900 in 2004, according to the study. The median credit-card debt for freshmen nearly tripled to $939 since 2004.

Meanwhile, a 2008 nationwide survey of high-school students by Jump$tart, a financial literacy organization, found that nearly 35 percent of students had a credit card, up slightly from the nearly 32 percent in 2002.

Steve Beekman, area director for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metropolitan Phoenix, said Lechter provided important skills to the children. He said a donor provided the gumballs and machines, while the children, who were between 11 and 15, donated the few hundred dollars in profits back to the Boys & Girls Clubs.

“It has gotten them exposed on how to run a business, and it has opened their eyes to the real world in how to make money and not go out and spend it all,” Beekman said.

Along with running YOUTHpreneur, Lechter also has co-authored “Three Feet From Gold,” which interviews successful entrepreneurs like the founders of Chick-fil-A restaurant and Mrs. Fields Cookies.

She said the book, a partnership with the Napoleon Hill Foundation, is scheduled to be released in October.