Most teens are thinking about how to stretch their money until next payday. Jack Alexander is focused on a plan for his money come 2051.

The 18-year-old from Plymouth placed first in a national essay contest that asked him how he would invest $100,000 if he were about to embark on a 40-year space mission.

It's not a question many teens could answer. But Alexander, whose love for the stock market started when his dad opened a brokerage account with him when he was 11, knew just what to do.

He learned about selecting mutual funds and reading stock charts in his investing class at Wayzata High School in Plymouth. The course, taught by business teacher Candace Lee, is an elective at the school of about 3,330 students. Just 20 students per year choose to take the class, which includes playing the Stock Market Game.

Jack selected three investments for his portfolio, which he researched online. Some of his favorite sites are, Yahoo Finance, and First, he put $40,000 in the T. Rowe Price Retirement 2055 fund (TRRNX), a lifecycle fund that invests in a mix of stocks and bonds that shifts from riskier to more conservative as the maturity date nears.

"The fund has no load and an expense ratio of only .77 percent -- both very important factors when investing long term as it can have a huge effect on profit," he explained in his essay.

He also picked this type of fund because it is well diversified. Having a diversified base gives him room to invest the rest of his money in exchange-traded funds that invest in the metals lithium and palladium. He picked exchange-traded funds, which are essentially index funds that trade like stocks, because they typically have lower expenses than mutual funds.

Why the ETFS Physical Palladium Shares (ticker: PALL)? Because palladium is used in catalytic converters for autos. "I was thinking in Third World countries there's going to be huge increase in demand for cars," he said.

And Global X Lithium ETF (LIT)? Because lithium powers the batteries in so many electronic devices. "I thought with the increase in demand for electronic devices, lithium is going to shoot through the roof," he said.

He owns both of these funds in his own portfolio, which has grown from the $500 his dad invested seven years ago to about $13,000 today. He checks it every day and makes trades on his cellphone.

Approximately 10,000 teens compete in the InvestWrite essay contest each semester. His prize was a big trophy and a trip to New York earlier this month, where he visited the New York Stock Exchange. The contest is sponsored by the SIFMA Foundation (SIFMA stands for Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association -- a trade group), which also sponsors the Stock Market Game. About 10,000 students in Minnesota play the game annually. The game is run in Minnesota by the local nonprofit BestPrep.

Jack says his friends aren't much into investing. What would it take to get them interested?

"Teenagers like money, right? So if you can show them how much money they could make and just the possibilities, that's all it would take," he said.

He cites the compound interest example that Lee uses in her personal finance class. In the example, "Cousin A" invests $2,000 per year from ages 18 to 25 while "Cousin B" starts investing $2,000 annually at age 26 until retirement at age 62. Despite a much smaller investment, Cousin A ends up with more money than Cousin B at age 62, thanks to the magic of compound interest.

Jack thinks the personal finance and investing courses should be required in high school. "Math is required, language arts is required, social studies is required. Investing is just such a good thing to know for your future."

What he learned in both courses will be a big help to him as he heads to Iowa State University to study engineering. He eventually wants to get an MBA in finance.

With all of the noise surrounding the debt ceiling, the 18-year-old offered some advice: If you see something on the news that worries you, "always wait a day. Don't over-react. Just think through it. Think long-term. The stock market over the long term has trended up."

Kara McGuire • 612-673-7293 or Twitter: Kara_McGuire