Cash-savvy crusaders teach children how to save like superheroes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 February, 2012, 12:00am


An uncle's unexpected gift of a Newfoundland banknote worth C$10,000 leaves a youngster wondering: what is its value in Hong Kong dollars and, more important, how should he spend it?

This was the interesting dilemma posed during a recent play by theatre group Jumbo Kids in Wan Chai, where lessons in smart money management took centre stage.

Some 300 primary school students who watched the show at a social centre last month were all abuzz as they tried to think of solutions to various financial dilemmas raised in the skit, which was based on the final instalment of the Agent Penny comic book series.

The half-hour show - filled with tips on budgeting, online shopping, currency exchange and the importance of saving for a rainy day - is the culmination of a financial literacy programme jointly initiated by Citibank and the Learning Society in 2005.

The lessons are timely because, according to Christine Lam Yuk-wah, from Citibank, children are more vulnerable to financial risk with their increased access to plastic money such as Octopus cards and credit cards, and the popularity of shopping on the internet.

'It's too late to teach them about financial management when they graduate from university burdened with debt [from student loans],' Lam says.

'Such education should begin as soon as students have money to spend and need to make decisions about purchases.

'Even primary students have Octopus cards with prepaid credit. Without the physical act of counting banknotes and coins, children may not understand that they are actually spending money. That's why we teach them the importance of budgeting,' she says.

Cases depicted in the Agent Penny series aren't that far from Hong Kong reality.

In one of the comic's four instalments, a girl uses her father's credit card to bid for a limited-edition CD online, then finds herself in trouble.

Whenever the characters are in doubt about what to do, Agent Penny and her sidekick, Will Power, come to their rescue by offering financial tips.

Lam says a key aim of the skit is to teach children to distinguish between needs and wants.

'This is especially relevant for modern-day kids who are enticed by all kinds of famous brands. They need to know the cost of purchasing flashy products and whether practicality should take precedence over desire,' she says.

And it seems the message has resonated with audiences. During the show's premiere, one of the characters, a boy named Shower, struggled between buying flashy sneakers and plain but heavy-duty shoes. Shouting at the top of their lungs, the youngsters in the audience urged Shower to pick the cheap and durable canvas sneaker.

Concepts such as compound interest and mortgage rates will seem vague to primary pupils, so the Jumbo Kids illustrate concepts using simple, everyday scenarios.

'To learn about budgeting, for instance, there's a scene showing characters in a donation drive,' says Even Lam Ying-kit, the troupe's artistic director.

'With HK$2,000, they need to decide what to buy for poor children living in a remote mainland village. To boost participation, we include interactive elements where the audience are asked to help the players make financial decisions.'

The final edition of Agent Penny, which was launched at the show, introduces the idea of donating to good causes. But it also highlights caution in making contributions. The skit saw the superheroes warn young donors to check that fund-raising are not scams.

In another of the skit's positive lessons, a young athlete learns to save his prize money instead of frittering it away on arcade games. Together with his earnings from a part-time job, his savings earn compound interest at the bank. Eventually, his savings grow big enough such that he can buy a ticket to a sports camp, which leads him to clinch a scholarship.

The lesson left a big impression on Lee Pui-yan, a Primary Five student from Canossa School who attended the premiere.

'I receive HK$20 for pocket money each week, but I'm saving all my pocket money and Lunar New Year lai see in my piggy bank,' Lee says.

'Although I want to buy video games, it's better for me to donate my savings to help mainland children who cannot afford to go to school. But I will only make the donation to a trustworthy organisation,' she says.

Lee says she was also grateful to learn about money matters, as they are not taught by her parents and there are few financial lessons at school. 'I'd never heard about currency exchange before this. Now I know how some currencies such as the Japanese yen correspond to Hong Kong dollars,' she says.