At any given moment in a randomly selected Lebanese café, one will likely spot an eight-year-old girl amusing herself with the newest iPad or other high-tech device. It is difficult to imagine that said young girl realizes that what she holds in her hands is worth more than what thousands of Lebanese families make each month. These children are being raised to see expensive things — and money itself — as playthings, and what many are not learning as they grow into adults is that financial success requires them to see money as a tool, not a toy.
In Beirut and other metropolitan areas, conspicuous consumption seems to be the order of the day. It is becoming all too easy to forget that almost 30 percent of the country lives in poverty, according to the United Nations. With all of this country’s outward displays of wealth, what’s slightly less apparent is how much of our nation’s youth is clueless about the true value of money, and the risks this financial illiteracy poses to the country at large.
While Lebanon was lucky enough to be relatively insulated from recent global economic crises, all over the country one can see the effect that poor money management is having on the nation as a whole. We live in a culture of waste at every level in our society — from the government sector to the corporate realm, and we often see examples of poor financial decision-making at work within individual homes. Consumer debt levels are climbing, while our public debt is estimated at a jaw dropping $54.3 billion, roughly 133 percent of GDP, among the highest ratios in the world. Lebanon exports relatively little aside from much needed human capital, but our taste for extravagant things still sees us importing products and luxury items at considerable levels. The Lebanese economy is increasingly dependent on remittances from those living abroad, but given the recent economic crises around the globe, this dependency will only make us more susceptible to market fluctuations elsewhere. All together, if this continues unchanged, it is a recipe for national disaster.
Nipping the bud
We must combat these dangerous practices that place our entire economy at risk, and it is imperative we start the fight early. If we ever hope to witness the success borne from a financially responsible citizenry, we ought to begin by teaching Lebanese youth to respect and understand the value of a lira, by teaching them how any economy works: You work hard for financial rewards, and then you must make important decisions regarding how to best and most efficiently use those resources.
Understanding how money is earned, and learning through vivid and detailed first-hand experience how to make informed and conscientious financial decisions, will give our children the best tools to succeed in the modern world. Some parents already do this by involving their little ones in the purchases they make everyday. Parents need to let their children see and understand that money is not something to be toyed around with. Giving children strict allowances and spending limits, as well as explaining our own financial decisions, will help train youth to cope with the kind of financial choices they will be forced to make later on.
Outside the home, Lebanese parents and policy makers should begin to encourage activities for our children that will help us instill these important financial values early on. Fortunately for parents, teachers, and children alike, there are facilities popping up all over the globe that are developed with just this goal in mind, and one is set to open in Beirut in the summer of 2012. These facilities employ a concept called “edutainment,” and are rich, highly interactive mini-cities with functioning kid-sized economies that encourage children to learn the value of money by role-playing through numerous careers, earning “cash,” and offering choices on how to invest that money throughout the facility, with not all choices being equal.
Though money might not be a toy, if we aim to take a playful approach in transmitting these important economic practices, learning how to be financially responsible can still be great fun. If we do not, the opportunity to address our current state of financial illiteracy will skip another generation.