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Become a Millionaire or Roast Marshmallows? The Camp Conundrum

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When I was about seven, my father decided to teach me about the stock market. He told me if I bought one share of stock, he would buy nine to match it. I recognized a good deal. I invested in Hershey because it was my favorite candy. Dad and I tracked the stock price in the tiny print in the back of our newspaper’s business section. Every time I ate a candy bar, the chocolate rectangles were all the sweeter because I was boosting the revenue at a company I at least party owned. I can’t say these lessons turned me into a financial genius, but I do understand the basics of investing and money management. Having an allowance also helped.


These days, there are a bunch of summer camps aimed at teaching kids about investing, money, and even entrepreneurship. I did a quick search on the Internet and discovered a lot of options.


The Money Camp is a day camp for kids ages ten to eighteen. It started in Santa Barbara, but now has locations throughout North America. The weeklong camp is one big make-believe game. First, kids get paychecks to pay their expenses. Then, they learn the number-one secret that all wealthy people know, says camp founder, Elisabeth Donati, which is “pay yourself first.” The campers peel off $100 from their next paychecks to invest in the stock market. They also start their own pretend businesses, hire people, and come up with marketing plans. More than 1,000 kids will participate this summer.


A day camp in Texas called the Millionaire Kids Camp is for children ages eight to sixteen. Campers “learn the basic elements of making, managing and multiplying money,” the Web site promises. Bentley College in Waltham, MA, hosts a spend-the-night camp for older teenagers. Campers at Wall Street 101 conduct simulated trading sessions in a high-tech trading room and also “explore the intricacies of the stock market and investigate certain processes of investment and portfolio construction.”


If these camps existed when I was a kid, I didn’t know about them. I went to a Girl Scout camp where we canoed, made crafts, and went swimming. On one hand, it seems sad to think of youngsters training to be Wall Street titans instead of roasting marshmallows. Why can’t kids do anything just for fun anymore? On the other hand, when you consider how much debt Americans carry, and how little they are saving (I just read an alarming statistic in the New York Times: the median retirement savings for baby boomers is a mere $25,000), perhaps kids need to learn about interest rates more than they need to weave lanyards.


I asked Donati if she often hears criticism related to the idea that kids should be having fun instead of managing a budget. “I never hear that,” she said. “Parents are always very relieved to find us.” Besides, she assured me, the camp is lively, interactive, and engaging. I must admit it does sound kind of fun, especially coming up with your own business idea. Campers probably feel like they are on an episode of The Apprentice.


Still, canoeing probably is more fun.


When my children are older, I’d like to teach them about the stock market the same way my father taught me. We’ll focus on whatever company modern-day kids like (I asked my seven-year-old niece what she would invest in and she picked Cingular). We’ll look up stock quotes on Yahoo. I’d also like my kids to have allowances, and summer jobs when they are old enough, so they can learn about living within one’s means.


If they take a particular interest in shorting stocks, buying options, and evaluating mutual funds, I would consider a money camp. Otherwise, I will look for a place with plenty of canoes, marshmallows, and crafts. Childhood passes so quickly, and camp should be fun.

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