Recently, I was going through my email contacts in order to let people I don’t talk with regularly know about the launch of the blog.
Shortly after sending an email to all my contacts not on social media, I began receiving the dreaded Mailer Daemon notice saying that some of my contacts were no longer valid.
I began going through and deleting them, when one name stood out to me.
Joe Kniser, my high school Personal Finance teacher.
I hadn’t spoken with Mr. Kniser in years. In fact, it had probably been at least 10 years. Of all the 20 or so invalid contacts, Mr. Kniser was the one person I really wanted to tell about my blog.
After all, he was the Personal Finance teacher, and had taught the subject for over 20 years. EVERY student that passed through the doors of Sandy High School had to take Mr. Kniser’s Personal Finance class as a junior, so he had influenced a lot of young people in his tenure.
I knew that Mr. Kniser had retired shortly after I graduated, and with an invalid email address my only course of action was to start with a quick Google search. I had known Mr. Kniser pretty well (I was also his teacher aide my senior year), and I felt confident I could track him down.
I typed in his name, but to my surprise the first thing that popped up was from the Oregonian.
Joseph Kniser Obituary.
I was in shock. Not only had Mr. Kniser passed away, but he had passed away 2 ½ years ago, and he was only 69.
As I read his obituary, the next feeling I had was one of profound sadness. No cause of death was mentioned, but my gut told me that his passing had something to do with an illness. How could someone so young and so seemingly healthy a few years before pass away?
I also felt sadness as I finished reading. He was survived by his wife, four sons, and numerous grandchildren. He spoke often and lovingly of his wife and sons, but he hadn’t had many grandchildren when I’d known him. Knowing how important and impactful my grandparents have been in my life, I was saddened that Mr. Kniser’s grandchildren had been robbed of him so soon.
After the shock and sadness dissipated, I began thinking back on his Personal Finance class and the things I learned. I have a lot of great memories of Mr. Kniser, but something that struck me was that most of them have nothing to do with personal finance!
Even better, those that do relate to personal finance were not really the most critical things a young person needs to know to survive today’s financial world.
This realization got me to thinking about how we teach finance to our young people. Most people agree the one thing they wish they knew more about was finance. While my high school stands out because they actually had a required Personal Finance class, what good is that class if it doesn’t give you the most important tools to navigate the financial world?
With these ideas in mind, here is what I remember from Mr. Kniser’s Personal Finance class, and why it may not have had the impact he had hoped.
The Rule of 72
The sign that hung above the door of Room 72, Mr. Kniser’s classroom.
He talked about this concept several times, although I doubt most students remember what it actually means.
I do of course, as finance is my thing.
The rule of 72 relates to compound interest and the time it takes to double your money in investment accounts. You take 72 divided by the annual interest rate, which then gives you the approximate time it takes to double your money.
For example, say you have an account with an interest rate of 5% APY. The rule of 72 states that you’ll double your money in about 14 ½ years.
72 / 5 = 14.4
Aside from the rule of 72, I do remember an exercise Mr. Kniser had us do to manually calculate how much we would earn with an investment account over time. The specifics of the assignment escape me now, but I remember we had to build a table and calculate the total balance for each year.
Of course the final balance was huge, especially for a high schooler, and I remember being impressed and deciding I was definitely going to invest in some sort of account later.
However, the real power was in doing the yearly calculations yourself and watching the interest slowly pick up steam and then take off. By having us calculate each year, Mr. Kniser was able to show that investments take a while to really show growth, but that with enough time they are very powerful financial tools.
Although this lesson (and the rule of 72) made a big impression on me, I feel like Mr. Kniser could have emphasized investments even more by giving us more concrete steps for how to invest.
For instance, he could have talked about different kinds of retirement accounts, and what to do based on the retirement accounts offered by our future employers. He could have also discussed and emphasized other types of investment accounts, such as CD’s, bonds, and IRA’s.
More instruction on the different types of accounts, and accounts we could invest in other than those offered by our employers, would have made this lesson on compound interest even more powerful and useful.
The Stock Market
Another impressionable project I remember from Personal Finance was about the stock market.
For this assignment, we were to group up and pick several stocks to follow over the next month or so. We picked around 10, and then charted their progress over time. The goal of the assignment was to make money and see how good we were at picking stocks.
My groups stocks made moderate progress, and we felt pretty good about ourselves.
Unfortunately, what we didn’t learn from this process was that you cannot judge the value of your stock investments by a month. In fact, you can’t even judge them by a year.
Anyone involved with investing will tell you that the stock market ebbs and flows, and that you rarely get ahead by constantly buying and selling. In fact, this is the main advice of investor extraordinaire Warren Buffett, who uses the buy-and-hold strategy. Most stocks gain over time, but it can often take years to see significant growth.
Thus, while this was a fun activity, Mr. Kniser could have made a bigger impression if he had shown us stock gains over longer periods of time. I feel he also made a mistake by having us pick the stocks ourselves. Many people like to pick and watch their own stock portfolios, but most of us don’t have the time or expertise to do so. Although you’ll pay a fee, I would recommend going through a financial advisor when investing in the stock market to get the most out of your investment with the least amount of time and effort.
Balancing Your Checkbook
Another thing I remember from Personal Finance was learning how to balance a checkbook.
I know a lot of people who do this, and it is a useful thing to know how to do. It is especially useful if you don’t have a lot of savings and need to track every expenditure you make.
However, I feel like balancing a checkbook is something that has gone by the wayside a bit with the explosion of online banking and the use of debit/credit cards over checks. I, for one, do not keep a checkbook with me and rarely pay with checks.
Instead, I monitor my accounts several times a week online. I realize this is easier to do if you have a savings built up and don’t need to account for every cent you spend, but many people (especially younger people) have switched to online monitoring versus a physical checkbook.
Thus, the emphasis Mr. Kniser put on properly balancing your checkbook was not the best use of time for keeping track of finances in the modern age. What would have been more helpful is learning how to build a budget, as well as an emphasis on the need to monitor your spending versus your income to avoid paying penalties and to meet your financial goals.
Credit Cards are BAD
This one makes me laugh, but it does make sense for a lot of people.
Mr. Kniser DID NOT like credit cards. I don’t honestly know if he even had a credit card or not, but he sure talked badly about them.
And I completely understand his focus. Many people (especially young people) use credit irresponsibly and get themselves into trouble, which he was trying to impact.
However, what Mr. Kniser failed to impart was that credit cards can be an extremely useful tool if you use them correctly.
His theory was that you feel the impact of money leaving you if you pay in cash, whereas you don’t with a credit card, and therefore you’ll spend more responsibly.
I disagree. First, many people (myself included) feel the impact of money leaving them no matter what method they use to make the payment. Second, most people today pay with either a credit or debit card, not cash. Debit cards have the same effect as credit cards (it doesn’t feel like money is leaving you), so that argument is largely mute.
However, IT IS tempting to buy something you want with credit because you know you can pay it back at a later date. In that regard I do agree with him, and would strongly recommend that you only use credit cards if you’re only buying things you would normally buy and if you can pay the balance every month.
Catch Me If You Can
This last one has no relevance to understanding basic personal finance, but is still one of the things I remember most about Mr. Kniser’s class.
Have you seen the movie Catch Me If You Can with Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio?
If you haven’t, you should.
The movie is based on the life of Frank Abagnale, who was able to con millions of dollars out of people by impersonating a pilot, a doctor, and a prosecutor, among others. His main mode of gaining money was through check fraud (basically using funds that don’t exist by taking advantage of the time between the issuing of the check and clearance by the bank). In fact, he was so good that the FBI eventually used him to catch other people forging checks.
The movie is good, but Mr. Kniser had a tape of an interview with the real Frank Abagnale in which he explained how he got away with some of his tricks. The interview is very funny, and you can’t help but shake your head at some of the things he was able to get away with. For example, he was able to impersonate a doctor supervisor for almost a year by relying on interns and scribbling when he needed to make notes (doctors have notoriously terrible handwriting).
While listening to the interview was entertaining, the information presented did not have any real value in terms of learning the basics of personal finance. For one, Frank Abagnale did his conning in the late 60’s and 70’s, and the systems he took advantage of have changed so much that it would be nearly impossible to replicate what he did today.
The entertainment value of the interview is still worthwhile, but it would have been more helpful to use it as a starting point for discussing how financial fraud has changed, and how we can protect ourselves in the present day.
The Number One Thing I Remember from Personal Finance
As previously mentioned, I was a teacher’s aide for Mr. Kniser my senior year, and it is this time I remember most.
Mr. Kniser told wonderful stories, and liked to share his life experiences with me. He told me all about his family, playing baseball, fishing, and how he always bought new cars and then drove them into the ground.
He was also a creature of habit, and very routine. In fact, one of my biggest accomplishments was in convincing him to change-up his vest game every now and then instead of wearing the same one every day (to which he said he wife was grateful).
He also always kept things in a certain order and place, which brings me to my favorite memory.
Mr. Kniser drove an older Mazda 626 that he’d bought brand new, and he always kept his keys in his desk drawer. He also always went to lunch in the teacher’s lounge at the same time.
It also just so happened that April 1st, April Fool’s Day, fell on a Friday that I was out of school at an Equestrian Team competition.
It was the perfect opportunity to pull a prank and my friend and I had the perfect idea.
We went to the store and purchased a small For Sale sign, like you see on the windshield of cars. We filled it out with all the features of Mr. Kniser’s Mazda, even down to the mileage. Finally, we listed the price.
Now here’s where it got REALLY fun.
We were able to use Mr. Kniser’s habits to our advantage. About 10 minutes before he was set to go to lunch we left the barn and drove to the high school. Once we arrived, we parked where we could see his classroom door (his classroom was part of a smaller building separate from the main school). We watched him leave, then gave ourselves a little bit of time to make sure he wouldn’t come back.
Then, with my friend waiting by his car, I ran into the classroom, grabbed the keys, and ran out to the car. We unlocked it, stuck the sign on the inside of the windshield, locked the door, and replaced the keys.
It was done in less than a minute.
Our only snag was the next door teacher came in to see who was in the classroom, which I was able to cover up pretty well by saying I had left something there the day before (remember, I was his teacher’s aide).
We were in and out of the high school in less than 5 minutes. Now we just had to sit and wait until Monday.
Monday rolled around and I couldn’t wait for 3rd period and my teacher’s aide class with Mr. Kniser. He was out of classroom when I arrived, so I sat on the other side of the classroom and pretended to be reading a book.
A few minutes later he walked in, took a look around, saw me, pointed a finger, and declared “I KNOW IT WAS YOU!”
I couldn’t help but bust up laughing, and neither could he.
Later on he told me how he had been so confused when someone had offered him $25 for his car when he was headed back after lunch, and how he was even more bewildered after he’d discovered the For Sale sign on the INSIDE of his windshield.
What tipped him off was our snag: the next door teacher.
She had come in after school and said I had been there getting something, and that’s when he put it all together.
He then proudly displayed the For Sale sign on his wall for the rest of the year and beyond, and I’ll never forget the greatest prank I ever pulled.
Moral of the Story
I have many great memories of Mr. Kniser, most of which revolve around the relationship I built with him as his teacher’s aide.
Mr. Kniser loved to tell stories and talk about life, and I loved to listen.
I was introduced to many finance topics through his class, most of which I’ve either forgotten or haven’t found relevant to my life.
It wasn’t that Mr. Kniser wasn’t trying to prepare us for finances in the real world, it was more that he was stuck in a time period that didn’t really exist anymore.
Unfortunately, he was a victim of the changing times, but didn’t know it. He was nearly ready to retire by the time I knew him, and the financial knowledge he imparted that had been relevant for his life was being outpaced by a changing world.
The problem was, he had failed to keep up with these changes, and so he often emphasized the wrong things. Buying a new car and running it into the ground doesn’t work as well now that the cost of a car exceeds your yearly salary as opposed to your monthly one, and balancing a checkbook isn’t relevant to generations that utilize online banking and debit cards.
In today’s world, it is necessary to understand how to build and follow a budget, the impact of credit and loans, how to invest and save for retirement, and how marketing and habits influence our financial decisions.
These are the topics that are now necessary to head-off the tricks that lenders and other institutions use to get people into debt, because those tricks have evolved with technology.
But despite how personal finance has changed, I am forever grateful to Mr. Kniser for trying, and for making personal finance something to look forward to.
People may not remember exactly what you did, or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.
Rest in peace Mr. Kniser.
Talk about Money Saved.
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