Camille Blechinger of Willow River, Minn., is that rare person capable of persuading teenagers that starting a savings account is a good idea. The most potent weapon in her power of persuasion is that she's also a teen.
Blechinger learned her savvy in LifeSmarts, a national high school program that fosters fun and practical consumer knowledge for teens. Getting friends to start saving wasn't an easy sell.
"They keep asking, 'Why, why, why?' and I always have an answer -- for a car, college or an emergency fund," she said. "I've gotten several of my friends to open savings accounts."
Besides personal finance, LifeSmarts (www.lifesmarts.org or 651-695-2420) also tests students' knowledge of technology, the environment, consumer rights, health and safety. LifeSmarts adviser and Willow River High School teacher Lois Johnson said the program delves deeper than most consumer education courses do because of the extensive information it makes available to students and teachers. She usually has 15 to 20 students in the LifeSmarts elective, which she has offered for 10 years.
Student teams with the highest online test scores compete in a state competition, which is similar to Quiz Bowl, with teams of four students and alternates competing against one or two other teams. Blechinger, Steven Prachar, Tylor Herzog, Shelby Disterhaupt and Brandon Good make up this year's team of seniors from Willow River, which won the Minnesota competition in March.
Two years ago, Good said he was slacking off in his classes. Johnson asked him to sign up for the elective to push him to get his grades up. Now he's teaching his grandparents about the V-chip in their satellite television and helping them with Internet auctions. Good also learned which type of fire extinguisher to use on various kinds of fires.
"I put a mini-extinguisher in my car to put out a small fire under the hood, he said. "LifeSmarts taught me that the reason my car was leaning was a bad suspension. My mechanic confirmed it."
After LifeSmarts taught Blechinger the benefits of comparison shopping, she figured that a staple such as a V-neck T-shirt wasn't something that needed a designer label. The tee at Abercrombie was $30, but she found that Target's version for $10 was just as good.
"I've worn both and can't find a quality difference," she said. "I'll still pay more for a brand-name running shoe, but I found out I don't need to spend more on a T-shirt."
Each of the five team members spent class and lunch time studying for the competition. To be more time-efficient, the team assigned a category for each member.
Herzog was assigned health and safety. Her knowledge of the Heimlich maneuver came in handy when her nephew began to choke recently.
Personal finance was never Disterhaupt's strength, she said, but LifeSmarts got her in a comfort zone with her checking, savings and debit-card accounts. She's had a couple of overdrafts, but now checks her balance online and does online transfers to avoid them.
Prachar said he enjoys teaching his dad a thing or two about consumer economics. After he learned about the Truth in Lending Act, Prachar told his dad that the act prohibits creditors from sending unsolicited credit cards to consumers.
"I like it when I can tell my dad something and he says, 'I didn't know that,'" he said.
Fighting to keep the program
Despite its practicality, LifeSmarts is like any other school program these days -- it's a candidate for the chopping block in a budget crunch.
It's a big potential loss for a small school such as Willow River. Its LifeSmarts team won the state competition in 2001, 2009 and 2010. This year's win meant a trip to nationals in Florida, if the students could raise the money. The school board applauded the team's win but couldn't guarantee the funds needed for transportation, meals and lodging.
So the students took their cause to the community of Willow River, a town of 400 about 25 miles north of Hinckley, Minn.
They went to business meetings and got contributions from the Willow River American Legion Club, Sturgeon Lake Lions Club and the Northern Pine Riders Snowmobile Club. They bagged groceries for no wages at Marketplace Foods in Moose Lake, where they spread the word to customers and Marketplace sold them food at a discount for a spaghetti dinner fundraiser.
Within a month of winning the state competition, the team raised $6,000 to compete last week in Miami Beach, where it placed 18th among 50 teams.
"All of the local townspeople saw how passionate we are about LifeSmarts," Prachar said.
Disterhaupt went a step further.
"I don't understand why some schools dump untold money into sports and we have to fight for a program like this," she said. "All of this is stuff you can use later in life."