Credit where it's due

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 September, 2011, 12:00am


It is perhaps the most commonly asked question among students returning to school: 'What did you do this summer?' Some will talk about their travels, others will reminisce about spending time with friends. For Angela Tang Ching-yin, it's learning about hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic during the early 1920s, and how that translates, on a micro level, to daily money management.

She was one of 25 participants at Camp Millionaire, a finance camp for youths that originated in the United States and was brought to Hong Kong this year by Maggie Chau Wai-chu, a former deputy principal at St Stephen's College and current founder of education services provider Quantum Academy.

'I've been in education for over 20 years and what I see is that kids' spending is becoming more and more out of control,' Chau says, explaining why she decided to bring the camp to Hong Kong.

The statistics back this up. According to a report from the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, credit card debt among students has gone up over the past decade to a point that where nearly 30 per cent have debts of more than HK$10,000, prompting the authority to set a credit limit of HK$10,000 for all student cards.

While the concept of youth finance camps may conjure images of trust fund babies preparing for their impending wealth, this group who attended the camp, held at Mong Kok's Diocesan Boys' School last month, is mostly from working class backgrounds.

For example, Tang's father is a truck driver and her mother a homemaker. The 16-year-old student at Sha Tin Methodist College receives a relatively modest allowance of HK$800 per month. She learned of the camp from an advertisement at her school and asked her parents if she could join.

'My finance sucks,' she says. 'My little brother gets the same allowance but his piggy bank is always full and mine is always empty.'

She thought it would be a mostly textbook-driven, class-oriented environment, and was pleasantly surprised on the first day.

Camp Millionaire operates like a mini society, where 'moolah' - mock currency featuring a cow's face - is the driving force. Students earn moolah by answering questions, volunteering for activities and taking initiative with projects. They then have to spend the moolah, by paying 'bills' (separated into several jars, labelled 'phone bills', 'rent', etc), making investments, and trading with each other. It's a competitive environment in which the person with the most moolah has the most options and advantages - just like the real world.

There are, of course, games throughout the four-day camp, partly to keep the atmosphere fun, but mostly to teach financial lessons and jargon. The classic game of musical chairs is renamed 'Supply and Demand Chairs'; it's the same game, but now students get a better understanding of what happens when demand surpasses supply - losers end up on their backsides.

Victor Yau Cheuk-hin is a typical Hong Kong teen. He loves spending time with friends at the movies, karaoke venues, and restaurants. He's into video games, comic books and the latest trendy clothes. He almost always runs out of money before the first of the month, when he receives his allowance.

His father, an accountant, heard about the camp from a friend and thought his son should attend.

'He's disorganised with his money and has no spending or saving plans,' says Peter Yau. 'I think people should learn how to handle their money at a young age.'

Another participant, 16-year-old Shirley Tin Chang, who emigrated from the mainland with her family a few years ago, says her parents signed her up hoping she would learn how to become wealthy.

'I'm a housewife and I want my daughter to have money-making abilities,' says Liu Wei, Shirley's mother.

Some may find these reasons to be superficial and avaricious - even Chau says she was initially sceptical of the camp when she first heard about it from her American friends.

'I had my doubts when I first heard about a camp that teaches children how to become millionaires,' she says. 'But I looked into it online and then I flew to Santa Barbara to attend the camp personally.'

What she found, she says, is that the camp isn't really about money.

'The lessons the camp teaches are life lessons, about chasing your dreams and making things happen,' Chau says. 'But yes, the camp doesn't sugarcoat how the real world works - you need to have money to make things happen.'

Victor also got the same message from the camp, saying: 'I learned that money is just a tool to help us achieve goals and do the things we want.'

However, parents may not necessarily see it that way. There's an old stereotype that Chinese parents only want their children to be doctors or lawyers - high-paying professions - and the teens seem to agree.

'My mum always says I don't have big enough goals,' says Dawn Chan Man-yan, 16, whose career goal is to be dolphin trainer.

'What I liked about this camp was that it taught me that in the real world, there needs to be a happy medium - it's not all about making money, but I shouldn't just dream of an obscure job that may not pay well with no backup plan.'

That backup plan, according to the camp, is passive income, meaning money that comes from stocks, shares, and interests.

'We learned about the importance of investing our money in stocks or other ventures that can give us passive income,' says Chan. 'Then we learned to differentiate between the needs and wants of our lives, so we watch our spending.'

Some may argue it's precocious for this particular group of participants, mostly in their mid-teens, with one as young as 11, to be learning about investments and stocks when most of their monthly allowances don't even crack four figures. But Chau argues you're never too young to learn.

'How you do anything is how you do everything,' Chau says, reciting one of about a dozen slogans from the camp [others include 'Assets feed you, liabilities eat you' and 'Most people don't plan to fail, they fail to plan'].

Chau says she's had good feedback from parents and schools, and will hold another camp in December.

The teens say they had fun - many have become friends - and have learned valuable life lessons.

'I used to buy a lot of things simply because I wanted [them],' says Tang. 'Now I will take a deeper look to see if that item is something I actually need.'