How To Stop Bor­ing Stu­dents When Teach­ing Per­sonal Fi­nance


Is your per­sonal fi­nance les­son sponge­wor­thy? In one of the most mem­o­rable Se­in­feld episodes of all-time, Elaine’s pre­ferred con­tra­cep­tive sponge is pulled off the mar­ket, caus­ing her to hoard her ex­ist­ing stash. With a lim­ited sup­ply, Elaine ag­o­nizes over whether the man she’s dat­ing is “sponge­wor­thy” or if she should wait for a bet­ter catch.

Elaine’s dilemma is not only en­ter­tain­ment, but also a hu­mor­ous method to an­a­lyze more mun­dane and hum­drum eco­nomic top­ics like op­por­tu­nity cost, scarcity, and op­tion-value pric­ing. Prince­ton Pro­fes­sor Av­inash Dixit ap­plied Elaine’s predica­ment in a pa­per, An Op­tion Value Prob­lem from Se­in­feld, “to quan­tify [the value of ] this con­cept of sponge wor­thi­ness.” The pa­per went vi­ral, at least by aca­demic jour­nal stan­dards, and helps re­in­force how Se­in­feld can be used to teach eco­nom­ics. Sim­i­larly, I have found the use of clips from Se­in­feld and other pop­u­lar tele­vi­sion shows to be an es­sen­tial tool when teach­ing fi­nan­cial lit­er­acy, not only to re­in­force im­por­tant con­cepts, but also to drive stu­dent en­gage­ment.

My mis­sion for the past seven years has been to help stu­dents and re­cent grad­u­ates de­velop healthy money habits and build the foun­da­tion for a life­time of fi­nan­cial well­ness. As the co­founder of the Har­vard Univer­sity Per­sonal Fi­nan­cial Man­age­ment Win­ter­s­es­sion Pro­gram who has also had the priv­i­lege of work­ing with stu­dents at Columbia

and Whar­ton as well as res­i­dent physi­cians at Mount Si­nai Hos­pi­tal, I’ve en­coun­tered the chal­lenge of com­mand­ing stu­dent’s at­ten­tion first­hand. Who would have thought that cash flow man­age­ment and the im­por­tance of renter’s in­sur­ance wouldn’t in­stantly and ef­fort­lessly en­rap­ture stu­dents?

De­spite many uni­ver­si­ties now rec­og­niz­ing the ben­e­fits of fi­nan­cial well­ness in­struc­tion, it is of­ten not in­cor­po­rated into the cur­ricu­lum as a for-credit course (An­na­maria Lusardi, one of the top ex­perts on fi­nan­cial lit­er­acy, has a new course at Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity that is a no­table ex­cep­tion). Po­si­tioned as an op­tional ex­tracur­ric­u­lar, per­sonal fi­nance runs up against many com­pet­ing de­mands, mak­ing it harder to at­tract stu­dents and keep their at­ten­tion dur­ing ses­sions. While stu­dents do come crav­ing in­for­ma­tion, many who I have spo­ken to have also said they don’t want to feel like they are sit­ting in just an­other bor­ing lec­ture.

Treat­ing per­sonal fi­nance ses­sions as a com­bi­na­tion of ed­u­ca­tion and en­ter­tain­ment has helped me main­tain stu­dent en­gage­ment and ef­fec­tively con­vey im­por­tant con­cepts. While this in­volves a va­ri­ety of tech­niques, the use of pop cul­ture ref­er­ences and videos to draw out in­sights has proven par­tic­u­larly handy in an era of short­ened at­ten­tion spans. Videos help bring alive oth­er­wise dry con­cepts like com­pound in­ter­est and sim­plify aca­demic jar­gon like hy­per­bolic dis­count­ing. They make in­sights more mem­o­rable and prac­ti­cal.

If you’re try­ing to ex­plain the time value of money, why not show Jerry Se­in­feld’s dad cal­cu­late how win­nings from a bet 50 years ago would have com­pounded? If you’re striv­ing to teach the im­por­tance of build­ing and main­tain­ing one’s fi­nan­cial rep­u­ta­tion, why not show the hu­mil­i­a­tion Jerry suf­fers af­ter he bounces a check at the lo­cal bodega and the owner puts it up on the cash reg­is­ter for all to see.

Se­in­feld is such a great teacher of eco­nom­ics that a group of pro­fes­sors cre­ated a web­site—The Eco­nom­ics of Se­in­feld—that in­dexes clips based on top­ics rang­ing from com­pound in­ter­est to vari­able costs. “It is the sim­plic­ity of Se­in­feld that makes it so ap­pro­pri­ate for use in eco­nom­ics cour­ses,” the site proclaims. “Us­ing these clips (as well as clips from other tele­vi­sion shows or movies) makes eco­nomic con­cepts come alive, mak­ing them more real for stu­dents. Ul­ti­mately, stu­dents will start see­ing eco­nom­ics ev­ery­where—in other TV shows, in pop­u­lar mu­sic, and most im­por­tantly, in their own lives.

While Se­in­feld ref­er­ences may soon start fall­ing flat on Gen­er­a­tion Z, newer shows, like Last Week Tonight with John

Oliver, have for­tu­itously filled the gap. If you are look­ing to add some en­ter­tain­ment into your per­sonal fi­nance lessons and cap­ture stu­dent’s at­ten­tion in a way that a Pow­erPoint slide or lec­ture can­not do on their own, be­low are a few fa­vorite clips, old and new, or­ga­nized by con­cept.


Satur­day Night Live’s rat­ings surged in the wake of the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. This clas­sic seg­ment fea­tur­ing Steve Martin and Amy Poehler and nar­rated by Chris Par­nell is a funny way to in­tro­duce bud­get­ing, needs vs. wants, and the con­cept of fi­nan­cial debt.

The Cosby Show of­fers one of the best bud­get­ing lessons of all time in this clip, when he teaches his son, Theo, about bud­get­ing with Mo­nop­oly money. How­ever, Bill Cosby has be­come a con­tro­ver­sial fig­ure given re­cent al­le­ga­tions, so use at your own dis­cre­tion.


John Oliver is my new fa­vorite per­sonal fi­nance celebrity. He’s pop­u­lar, rel­e­vant with to­day’s au­di­ence, and blis­ter­ingly funny in his take down of var­i­ous com­pa­nies and fi­nan­cial prac­tices. I love his Last Week Tonight seg­ment on Credit Re­ports (use sec­tions from the start to 0:50 and then from 1:01 to 1:50 to avoid foul lan­guage).

Se­in­feld has a short but great clip about the backlash against Jerry when one of his checks bounces. I use this as a cheeky way to talk about the im­por­tance of safe­guard­ing your fi­nan­cial rep­u­ta­tion, which segues nicely to a dis­cus­sion about build­ing credit and watch­ing over your credit re­port.

The Daily Show: This clip pokes fun at the use of credit cards and is a great way to dis­cuss buy­ing habits us­ing cash, debit, and credit.


The Simp­sons, the long­est-run­ning Amer­i­can sit­com, sat­i­rizes many ele-

ments of Amer­i­can cul­ture. One of my fa­vorite clips is about the Town of Spring­field—and Homer specif­i­cally— strug­gling to com­plete and sub­mit tax re­turns on time. It is a ter­rific way to in­tro­duce taxes and in­sights around de­duc­tions and penal­ties (and teach stu­dents that, yes, they do need to file their taxes ev­ery year).

In­vest­ing Jerry Se­in­feld (the co­me­dian, not the show): There’s a short but ef­fec­tive clip from Jerry Se­in­feld’s standup act about “Morn­ing Guy” and “Night Guy.” The clip high­lights the con­se­quences of over­valu­ing our present selves and not think­ing about the con­se­quences that our ac­tions to­day will have on our fu­ture selves. This clip can help set the stage for dis­cus­sions about start­ing to in­vest for re­tire­ment early or about some of the pit­falls of credit cards.

Se­in­feld: To demon­strate the time value of money, I use my fa­vorite clip of Jerry’s dad do­ing the cal­cu­la­tion of what a $50 debt would be worth 52 years later. I use this clip with col­lege se­niors, grad­u­ate stu­dents, and new em­ploy­ees as a help­ful com­ple­ment to demon­strate how im­por­tant putting money away early is to their long-term fi­nan­cial suc­cess.

Last Week Tonight: While in school, most stu­dents will in­ter­act with peo­ple—pro­fes­sors, ad­min­is­tra­tors, ad­vi­sors—who will have their best in­ter­ests at heart; how­ever, this is not the case af­ter they grad­u­ate. John Oliver tack­les one of the most im­por­tant over­ar­ch­ing lessons to in­still in stu­dents, which is that they are ul­ti­mately re­spon­si­ble for their own fi­nan­cial des­tiny. The end of the clip is an ef­fec­tive way to in­tro­duce stu­dents to the im­por­tance of fidu­ciary duty.

One word of cau­tion. Copy­right law carves out fair use ex­cep­tions for us­ing clips in ed­u­ca­tional set­tings, but there are lim­its. Be­fore us­ing any clips, please make sure you are abid­ing by copy­right and fair use guidelines.

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