04/18/2012 04:51 pm ET Updated Jun 18, 2012

Using Comic Books to Teach Financial Literacy

For decades, millions of kids have faithfully followed the adventures of their favorite comic book superheroes like Spider-Man and the X-Men -- sometimes well into adulthood. Although often considered pure escapism, comic books also can serve an educational role -- whether it's teaching the principles of science, demonstrating right vs. wrong or even helping kids learn how to read.

Personal financial management is one of those important, yet admittedly dull, subjects parents want to teach their kids, but sometimes avoid -- maybe they feel they don't know enough about it, or are afraid family financial secrets will be shared on the playground. As I learned firsthand growing up in a household where finances were never discussed, learning about money through the school of hard knocks is mighty unproductive -- and expensive.

As a way to introduce children to basic money concepts in a kid-friendly format, Marvel Comics and my employer, Visa Inc., recently collaborated on a new comic book called Avengers: Saving the Day. The plot follows the world's most popular superheroes, including Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk and Black Widow, as they learn valuable lessons about managing personal finances while foiling an attempted bank heist by the arch villain, Mole Man.

Ideally, children develop financial skills they'll need in adulthood while still in school -- things like balancing a checkbook, filing taxes and managing credit cards. But in reality, despite the increasing number and complexity of financial decisions today's consumers face, only a handful of states mandate financial literacy courses as a condition for graduating high school.

That's where comic books can help. As Marvel Comics editor Bill Rosemann explained, "In an uncertain world, understanding how to save and properly budget your hard-earned money is one of the keys to personal success. The Avengers are not only the world's greatest heroes, but they also know a thing or three about financial health. After all, Iron Man hasn't managed his vast wealth of Stark Enterprises by accident, and as Spider-Man learns in this story, you don't have to be a millionaire to be a saving hero."

Avengers: Saving the Day was created by a renowned team of Marvel storytellers, including veteran writer James Asmus (Generation Hope) and artist Andrea Di Vito (Avengers Academy) and features a new cover by the legendary Tom Grummett (X-Men Forever). The comic book is available for free, in both print and online editions, at Practical Money Skills for Life, a free personal financial management program run by Visa.

The 16-page comic is being released around the world and is available in Arabic, Bahasa Indonesia, Chinese, English, French, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish. A free teacher's guide with lesson plans suitable for grades 2 to 7 is also available at the site.

Other resources where you can find and learn more about educational comic books and other classroom materials include:
  • The Federal Reserve System, which stocks several free online comic books that explain how banking and monetary systems work.
  • The Jump$tart Coalition, a national coalition of organizations dedicated to improving the financial literacy of kindergarten through college-age youth by providing advocacy, research, standards and educational resources. JumpStart offers hundreds of free and low-cost educational materials.
  • The Comic Book Project, a nationwide afterschool program founded by Dr. Michael Bitz of the Center for Educational Pathways that encourages children to plot, write and draw comic books, often using their own lives as inspiration.
  • The National Association of Comics Art Educators, which produces exercises, study guides and handouts on comics in the classroom.

Comic books aren't the only kid-friendly way to teach financial literacy. Studies have shown that the key components of good video games -- including immediate feedback, rewards, motivation and goal-setting -- may do a better job of preparing today's kids for the modern, high-technology, global world in which they live than the more traditional types of learning often found in the classroom. See my previous blog, Video Games Aren't So Bad After All, to learn more about these studies.

Some of the better free educational video games for various age groups I've seen include:
  • Peter Pig's Money Counter, where kids ages 4 to7 can practice sorting and counting coins with the help of wise Peter Pig.
  • You Are Here, an animated site where 5th through 8th graders wander through a virtual "mall," playing games and learning key consumer concepts such as the impact of advertising, how to spot scams and protect personal information.
  • Hands on Banking, which teaches financial basics and smart money management skills, including dedicated sites for teens and younger kids.
  • Financial Football, which combines the NFL's structure and rules with hundreds of questions of varying difficulty designed to test students' financial knowledge.

Bottom line: Kids learn more when their imagination is engaged, so look for well-designed educational comic books, video games and toys to supplement more traditional learning tools.

This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.

To participate in a free, online Financial Literacy and Education Summit on April 23, 2012, go to Practical Money Skills.