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Putting Economics Back in Home Economics

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I started worrying about taxes before Thanksgiving. I spent tens of hours on the IRS web site, pondering the minutiae of my tax returns. Can I file the 1040EZ if my parents claim me as a dependent? Can my parents even claim me as a dependent anymore? Is a stipend taxable? How about a grant?

Starting on April 17, with taxes finally filed, I launched into the world of credit. Is it possible to have a good score with such young accounts? Do I need to open another credit line or should I just wait until I have a car loan? Does my small-time landlord report my regular, timely payments?

My parents messed up. Or perhaps my prestigious high school and university did. Maybe I've been oblivious. But somehow I'm 21 -- a legal adult -- and an economics major, yet I don't know the first thing about anything related to money.

I am not alone. Many find themselves in similar situations. Forty one percent of adults give themselves a grade of C, D, or F on their knowledge of personal finance.

Fortunately, the solution to this widespread ignorance is already at hand: Home Economics. The age-old course should be repurposed for our financially-turbulent era. Instead of teaching flower arranging or button attaching, Home Ec should teach what its title purports: economics for the home.

At its inception in 1899, Home Ec brought to homemaking much-needed scientific knowledge -- from hygiene to germ theory. Founder Ellen Richards believed that incorporating sciences into homemaking would help prevent the social disintegration she perceived. These days, the class has fallen into disrepute -- perhaps for good reason. I cannot name a single lesson or homework assignment from the roughly 45 hours I spent in the state-mandated Consumer Education class. This from the school that was ranked first in the state the year I graduated.

Home Ec classes need not be useless. Refocused, they could play a vital role, teaching crucial -- if basic -- economic skills to young people:

Budgeting. Thirty-eight percent of undergraduates in 2009 took out college loans. Many of us already have credit cards. We need to understand budgeting to ensure these financial responsibilities do not condemn us to perpetual debt and potential bankruptcy. Alarmingly, a recent study suggests that debt -- even credit card debt -- positively correlates with a sense of self-esteem and mastery amongst young people. Home Ec should teach us to approach debt appropriately and to budget accordingly.

Saving. As students begin making substantial money, Home Ec should teach how and how much to save. As a nation, America saves less than experts say we should. Most of us don't even know many of the mechanisms available for doing so: the Roth IRA, the 401(k).

Credit. Most young people will want a job, a credit card, a car payment plan. When we need an apartment, not all of us will be able to rely on relatives with the willingness or credit to co-sign. For all these situations, Home Ec should provide information about what credit is, how it is calculated, and how to maintain a good credit score.

Taxes. Paying taxes is one of the most basic civic duties. But it comes with more red tape than most, as well as serious consequences in the case of error. Home Ec ought to walk students through their first filing or have us complete a mock filing in preparation.

There is clearly a pressing need for this information. One indication is the proliferation of services like TurboTax and CreditKarma, which help do these tasks for us, as well as blogs like The Simple Dollar or The Financial Highway, which explain financial topics and guide thrifty lifestyle choices. Just this year, the National Financial Educator's Council rolled out free personal finance programs for youth. Such resources are invaluable. Indeed, 82 percent of young adults say they would benefit from professional financial advice.

Unfortunately, it is unrealistic to assume that every individual will painstakingly pick apart personal finance. In fact, recent studies find a dearth of financial literacy among the general population, with few people knowing about simple compound interest, for example. Similarly, only a small fraction of Americans consult financial advisors of any sort. As it is, 65 percent of adults did not order a credit report in the past 12 months, even though soft reports are free. In other words, existing resources only help those who are exceptionally far-sighted, neurotic, or already in too much trouble to ignore them. Home Ec needs to be a preventative measure designed to help all young people before they find themselves in economic jams they barely understand.

Not so long ago, Missouri GOP gubernatorial candidate Dave Spence came under fire after it was revealed that his touted "degree in economics" was actually in home economics. Spence may have felt ashamed of his education, but I, for one, would be happy to have it. Indeed, it would be a blessing to young people, IRS auditors, bankruptcy courts and our national economy if every student understood personal finances and taxes.