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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 September, 2003, 14:34 GMT 15:34 UK
The buck starts here

By Virginia Eastman
Santa Barbara, California

The Liz and Larry Show
In the UK, sending your children to a summer camp that preaches finance might seem an odd idea.

And it's even easier to be sceptical when Elisabeth Donati and Lawrence Stein jump up in shorts, white school shirts and ties and, with big cheesy grins, holler: "Welcome to Money Camp!"

But then this is California - and this is no ordinary camp. Not a tent or a toasted marshmallow in sight. It's a Money Camp for children who want to be "financially independent".

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Larry and Liz held the first Money Camp for Kids a year ago in the grungy Westside Boys and Girls Club of Santa Barbara.

This year they've run 12 camps for more than 160 children (and adults), such has been the demand.

Larry, a lawyer, and Liz, who's in the fitness and nutrition industry, are like two torn halves of a dollar note. They have a high octane double act, bubbling with enthusiasm for their subject.

Evangelical

Parents are evangelical, too. They told me of the perils of sending a child "thrust out into the world without knowing how to write a cheque".

Before the Santa Barbara camp started, we held a competition at the West Houghton High School near Bolton to recruit our own Money Camper.

Hayley Marlor
Hayley: Likes boys and money
We wanted to see what a British child made of this uniquely American experience.

Hayley Marlor beat off the competition. She, like many 14-year-olds, has braces, likes boys and boy bands. She wants "a big house, a flash car, lots of money!"

"This will bring you happiness?" I ask her.

"Yes - and lots of clothes as well."

Hayley, like the other campers, had every incentive to stay focused during lessons; every bright idea or right answer is worth a dollar, either a real one or Monopoly money that counts as a point towards the Winner of the Week.

So what exactly do Larry and Liz teach their eager students?

  • Day One - The subject is money, who has it and who doesn't. Everyone is handed out a profession - Hayley is an amusement park owner. "Great," she thinks, "something to charge admission for so we'll make lots of money!"

    Money is a universal tool.
    Elisabeth Donati
    But the students also learn that only two of them (representing 4% of the population) will become millionaires. The amusement park suddenly seems less attractive, and there's much contemplation on what the rest can do to improve their chances of being one of the two.

    At the last count America has 228 billionaires. The UK has 41, according to Forbes Magazine.

  • Day Two - Gina, a 28-year-old hairdresser, becomes a role model for the children. She tells them she is now semi-retired as a result of her investment decisions. What's her big tip? At a young age put money in mutual funds (unit trusts).

    Learning from Gina how to retire at 28
    By the end of the week this woman is still in the thoughts of all the children - the idea of being able to retire at 28 has been driven home!

  • Day Three - Reading the financial pages. Shares, mutual funds, bonds, p/e ratios, dividends and risk are all on the agenda. Hayley learns that if she wants to save for university the stock market is not the place for her. There won't be enough time for her investments to mature.

  • Day Four - Time to do the family budget. Twelve-year-old Nolan Johnson and his ecologist mother Virginia Gardner decide the best way to use credit cards is not to have them in the first place.

    They talk about the ethics of investing in a company that makes defence equipment but has high returns. Nolan thinks it's definitely not OK to invest in companies that make ammunition, "unless the price goes waaaaay high and never comes down!"

    "Hmm... we might have to work on that one," sighs Mum with a wistful look.

  • Day Five - The campers are shown a real business and in California what better than the Santa Barbara Sailing Club? Time for a bit of revision as we sail the Pacific, north towards San Francisco.

    What better export from America than to know how wealth is created?
    Larry Stein
    "What's a bond?" I ask 12-year-old Chelsea Killam. "It's when you loan money to a company or a country - like a war bond," she tells me with absolute confidence. "You loan money to them so they can use it and you earn interest.

    "So a long time later when you cash it in you'll have more money".

    Every child has a good grasp of mutual funds. But p/e ratios may take a little more time.

    The two tutors were unrepentant about teaching youngsters such complicated stuff.

    Don't let money go to your head...
    "What better export from America than to know how wealth is created, how money is handled and how to start one's own business?" enthused Larry.

    Liz nodded vigorously and added: "You know money is a universal tool, and it's universal that people don't know how to use it."

    So what did Hayley make of it?

    "I learned the importance of not keeping all your savings in one place, so now I'm looking for the best rates around.

    "It was fun and they did it very well considering it's a non-profit organisation - which I now understand. I found the Americans a bit loud and larger than life. But the message got through and if they're going to have another one, I'll be first in line".



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