Why Your Teens Would Share a Car But Not a Cellphone

With a quirky list of questions, the teen-focused nonprofit Do Something hopes to put a stamp on the financial literacy game.

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Nudges, reminders and tips through social media are the new battleground for reaching teens with information that will help them understand how to set budgets and otherwise manage their money, both now and when they are adults.

This comes as no real surprise. The average teen sends and receives 3,339 texts a month—and reads just about everything coming in via smartphone. Why not reach them where they are?

That’s the theory behind the second installment of the teen-geared nonprofit Do Something’s financially focused Would-You-Rather social media outreach, being unveiled today. The campaign is centered on a quirky little text exchange that last year reached about 44,000 kids with personal finance messages. The organization expects to exceed that number this year.

Other organizations including the Consumer Federation of America through its America Saves campaign are also experimenting with texted advice for young people to save or budget. A growing body of research suggests such texted tips really work, and a yet-to-be-released small-scale study out of Ohio will bolster the case. This study will show that financial education leads to positive behavior change, and that when reinforced with regular text nudges teens up their money game substantially.

In the study by Brian Page, an Ohio schoolteacher and advocate for financial education, teens taking a financial literacy course raised the rate at which they identified a savings goal, opened a savings account, and deposited money in their account. The improvement accelerated among those who also got text reminders.

For example, the percentage of students who said they have a savings goal went from 64% before a money course to 69% after. In a group that also got text messages the rate went from 79% to 94%. “In every case, financial education led to behavior change,” Page says. “The nudging led to even more change.” Page hopes to do a more formal study on a national level.

The Do Something campaign is a further test of the nudge factor; it also gives us some fun insights into the minds of teens. Last year, the campaign asked teens a series of largely unrelated questions to get them engaged, and found that:

  • 86% of teens would rather share a car with their grandma than share a cell phone with their mom.
  • 78% of teens would rather light their house with candles than flush their toilet only once a day.
  • 69% of teens would rather eat ramen every day than tuna.
  • 52% of teens would rather share a bar of soap with 20 people they don’t know than share a toothbrush with their brother.

This year, the campaign will turn up some more fun data, asking teens “Would you rather:”

  • Share your spring break hotel room with your entire family or not go on spring break at all?
  • Be Lindsay Lohan’s personal assistant or do the Dallas Cowboys laundry?
  • Give up music or do the Dougie every time you hear music?
  • Walk a mile barefoot to school or have your mom drop you off with a big public kiss?

You get the idea. As kids answer, tips appear on their smartphone and, yes, standard text message rates apply. It all begins by texting “start” to 38383. They’ll be reminded that it’s cheaper to have friends over than go out, and that you should wait 30 days before buying something you don’t need, among other simple lessons.

Mobile technology may be invasive. But banks and marketers have figured out that this is where young people can be reached. So too should parents and educators, if they have not already.