Crystal Rigley, who teaches personal finance and AP economics at Berkeley High, poses for a portrait outside her classroom, which advertises the benefits of investing. Credit: Ally Markovich

Outside Crystal Rigley’s classroom at Berkeley High is a big poster asking students if they want to become a millionaire. “Do you want $2,415,555 for free?” the sign asks. 

The poster is an advertisement for Rigley’s personal finance class at Berkeley High, an elective for seniors that takes students through the fundamentals of money management — how to use a budget, how to build a good credit score and how to invest in the stock market.

Rigley promises students that, if they follow her advice, that $2.4 million can be theirs — in 40 years. Her recipe for success is straightforward: Put $500 into a Roth IRA every month from age 22 to 62. (She jokes that students are always disappointed that consistently saving for retirement is how to become a millionaire.)

“These kids have to get started immediately, or they’re never going to be able to save their way to retirement,” said Rigley, who started her career in wealth management but switched to teaching when she couldn’t stand “making rich people richer.” 

Now, she aims to arm students with the tools they need to build wealth regardless of family background. 

“I have 18-year-olds with Fidelity Roth IRAs, making investments, and that stuff is just so life-changing,” Rigley said. For some of her students, “it’s creating generational wealth for the very first time in their family.” 

Students in Ms. Rigley’s financial literacy class listen to a presentation on using job boards like LinkedIn to grow their network. Credit: Ally Markovich

Rigley is part of a growing movement of California educators who want to see personal finance become a requirement for California high school students.

California already requires that high school students study economics to graduate, but only about a quarter of schools offer a personal finance class. A new bill — AB 984 — is trying to change that. Introduced by Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, the bill would make personal finance a required class by 2028-29.

Two weeks ago, State Superintendent Tony Thurmond visited Rigley’s classroom to get a first-hand look at what personal finance education looks like. Tim Ranzetta, co-founder of NextGen Personal Finance, also joined for the visit. “I wish every member of the California State Assembly saw and heard what we did yesterday during our visit,” Ranzetta wrote in a LinkedIn post.

Not everyone is on board. Critics — including some writers and academics — say emphasizing financial literacy puts a band-aid on societal inequality, offering an individualistic solution for problems that should be addressed with policy decisions. 

Washington Post columnist Helen Obaine argued that, during the pandemic, direct payments allowed people to save more and pay down credit card debt. “When they have adequate funds, many Americans are fine stewards of their money,” she wrote.

Rigley said it doesn’t have to be either-or: “Young people desperately need financial literacy,” she wrote in a text message, regardless of state and federal aid.

Books on a green bookshelf with titles like "Get Good Money" and "Sacred Success"
Books in Ms. Rigley’s classroom teach students about money management. Credit: Ally Markovich
Hand-drawn made by students advertise the benefits of money. One reads, "Money can't buy me happiness" with the T crossed out.
Students made posters about the link between money and happiness. Credit: Ally Markovich

Omar Al-Ariemy, a senior in Rigley’s class, said his financial habits changed completely over the course of the class. “I used to spend, spend, spend,” Al-Ariemy said, most of his money going toward going out to eat with friends. Now, he takes $100 a month and gives the rest to his dad to save for him. 

When Kamara Snelgro got her first check, she went to Rigley for advice on how to budget the money she earned from it. Charlie McDunn set up a custodial account through his dad to get a head start on his savings. Other students said they thought differently about their college decisions, making them more aware of what it would be like to be saddled with student debt.

Rigley has a tough-love, self-reliant approach to wealth that she tries to impress on her students, one that she has built on the backs of her own mistakes. “Don’t tell me you’re going to try. Do you want financial freedom or not? Do you want to be a millionaire, or not?” she asks them. 

“I want them to have a different mindset, of not just being a consumer of instant gratification, but ‘I need to build wealth and wealth takes time,’” she said. Like most people, Rigley didn’t have a financial education in high school and initially lost money trying to trade stocks on her own.

Students regularly relay the information they learn in Rigely’s class to their parents, many of whom never had a formal financial education. 

“A lot of the stuff that we’re doing here, I find that it would be important for even an adult to hear,” Snelgro said. Her mom, a teacher, hopes to incorporate some of Rigley’s curriculum into her own course.

Many financial lessons resonate across generations, but Gen Z faces particular challenges, Rigley said. 

With the cost of living rising, young people will need to save more money than ever to be able to retire. And Rigley teaches her students to avoid online banks that target young people by offering a better user experience but come with high monthly fees. 

Other lessons focus on gambling, which has become even more accessible online. In the class, students also learn to navigate difficult-to-use websites, forms and phone-lines, so they don’t have to go through it for the first time on their own.

If personal finance becomes a required class in California, Rigley’s dream is to train other teachers in the subject.

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Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...