Navares Ladd can tell you pretty much down to the dollar where his hard-earned money goes.

Rent. Prepaid phone card. Hipster-leaning clothes. Spaghetti sauce.

Nineteen-year-old Ladd knows how much everything costs and what to do when his banking app shows that money out exceeds money in. He stops spending.

Ladd’s impressive financial literacy skills set him miles apart from most of his peers — and most adults, too.

So does the fact that Ladd has been homeless through most of his teens.

Mastering money might seem like the last thing a young adult like Ladd needs to survive. Shouldn’t the focus be on a roof and food?

Yes and yes. But without an understanding of how to budget, when to pay off credit card charges (every month!) and why you might want to back off on daily Chipotle runs, kids like Ladd will be sucked right back down the hole.

That’s why, next to his high school diploma and forklift license, Ladd proudly displays his most recent accomplishment:

A framed certificate for completion of a four-session financial literacy class, taught by volunteer instructor Steve Burk.

“This class is missed in most high schools,” said Burk, who works in IT with Voya Financial. “At 16, your parents pay the rent. There’s food on the table. Not for a homeless kid.”

Burk teaches the free “Financial Literacy for Homeless Youth” at the 42-unit Nicollet Square Apartments in Minneapolis, where Ladd lives. The low-rent, transitional housing units are owned by Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative. YouthLink provides supportive services and case management.

Week by week, often with a promise of pizza at the end, Burk talks budgeting, credit cards, banking and saving. After completion, the students get a $300 grant to use toward rent.

In the first class, they learn how to build a budget, and why they might want to.

One student, Burk said, tracked her monthly McDonald’s expenses as $7 every workday. “It didn’t seem like that much,” Burk said, “but it was $140 a month and she was only making $400.” He suggested she cut back to three times a week and pack her lunch the other two. He pointed out to another girl that she had to work a full hour to pay for her Chipotle dinner, but could have made four meals for the same money by going to the grocery store.

In addition, he encouraged them to open an insured bank account (and explains what that is), instead of keeping everything they make, vulnerably, in their wallets. He showed them how just $5 a week in savings can grow to $260 in a year.

But nothing presents greater peril than credit cards.

“They get spammed in their mail,” Burk said. Like all young adults, they want things, so they sign up for a card. Then they can’t pay it off.

“Their rating goes down,” he said. “They’re chased and hounded, they start panicking, they get another credit card to pay off the first one.”

One student confided that she maxed out her credit card at a restaurant. Another, heading off to serve in the National Guard, used his credit card to buy a suit for a funeral, then couldn’t pay his rent because of it.

Burk encouraged him to go into the bank. “Show your human face and explain what you’re doing,” Burk said. The banker gave the young man extra time on the credit card.

It gets easier, he tells them. You’ll get raises. Stick with it. Keep pushing.

Burk’s interest is more than professional. His father was unemployed for about a year when Burk was a boy.

“I did paper routes. We were very impoverished. We struggled. It was a great reminder when I saw these kids, almost like a flashback.”

So far, nine students have graduated from the program, which also is offered at Minneapolis’ St. Barnabas Apartments by former Voya employee Toni Lea. Fifteen other homeless youths have attended at least two classes.

“We have nothing but positive feedback,” said housing supervisor Rachel Greenwald of Burk’s generous outreach. “They say, ‘It was great. When is he coming back?’ ”

Burk has just been given the green light by Voya to fund four more spots. He wishes he could fund dozens more.

“It never ceases to humble me when I hear their problems and how much they want to fix them,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of them want to better themselves. Let’s give them that ingredient.”

Earning a big break

Like most homeless kids, Ladd moved around a lot, couch-hopping and attending three high schools before graduating from Richfield High School in 2014.

Some of his teachers knew his challenges, and some of the kids, did, too. “They’d nod their heads,” he said, “but they weren’t really listeners.”

His main priority, he said, “was getting an education and getting from Point A to Point B.”

He got a big break when he moved to the Bridge for Youth and began earning $7.25 an hour doing odd jobs.

“A legit job? Wow!” he said. “That’s awesome.”

He moved into Nicollet Square two years ago, immediately lying down on the bed of his studio apartment and falling asleep.

“No interruptions,” he said.

He now makes about $12 an hour in service jobs and saves anything left over after paying his rent and other expenses.

(He confesses with a laugh that he did break his savings rule once, to buy a Nintendo 3DS.)

He also receives assistance through Supplemental Security Income and Electronic Benefit Transfer. He shops for groceries mostly at food shelves and dollar stores. A dapper dresser, he finds his clothes at Goodwill, Target and H&M.

The fork-lifting job, which can pay as much as $15 an hour, is more of a “backup plan,” he said, “if things go south.”

Ladd is thinking about getting a credit card now, but will keep the limit at $300. “Then, when I’m ready, a little bigger,” he said, channeling Burk.

“Steve was very descriptive about what we need to do to save,” Ladd said. “You never want to owe. Pay your card on time for that good credit score.”

No wonder Burk is so proud of him. “You wanted to get though this class and improve yourself,” he tells Ladd.

Ladd is proud of himself, too. He’s looking for a house to rent with his older sister, Nadia, who is pregnant. Her birthday is coming up, and, for the first time, Ladd has been able to save.

“I’ll have money this time,” Ladd said, flashing his million-dollar smile. “I’m going to make sure it’s the best birthday ever.”

 

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com