How money works, for high-schoolers
Nonprofit collaborates with business leaders to teach teens about finance

By Katherine Michalets - Freeman Staff

Dec. 16, 2015

Rick Fong, center, outlines the basics of a credit score to students at James Madison Academic Campus in Milwaukee, while Principal Gregory Ogunbowale observes. Fong and his wife, Stephanie, live and work in Brookfield, and both volunteer to teach financial literacy at schools in Milwaukee and Waukesha through the nonprofit Make A Difference - Wisconsin.  
Photo courtesy of Peter DiAntoni

TOWN OF BROOKFIELD - While educating adults on how money works, Stephanie Fong realized just how little is taught about personal finance in school, such as the importance of understanding compound interest, saving money early and debt.

When she and her husband Rick, both of Primerica Financial Services, learned of Make A Difference - Wisconsin, a nonprofit organization that provides teenagers financial literacy educational resources and real-world lessons, they decided to volunteer their time.

“I had to put my efforts where my mouth is at,” Fong, a Town of Brookfield resident, said. She has taught the Make A Difference - Wisconsin program at Martin Luther High School, Pius and University School of Milwaukee. Her husband and other Primerica Financial Services employees have volunteered their time at Waukesha North, Waukesha South and Kettle Moraine high schools.

Brenda Campbell, CEO of Make A Difference - Wisconsin, said the organization, founded in 2006, provides programming and resources to empower teens to make sound financial decisions.

The programs are delivered by volunteers from the business community. Before they enter the classroom, Campbell said, each person is trained and matched with a class. The goal is that the 17- and 18-year-olds they predominantly work with will graduate from high school with basic personal finance knowledge.

Jessica Fritz, left, chief financial officer of Ridgestone Bank in Brookfield, leads a November lesson on building a personal budget with students from Milwaukee’s Carmen High School of Science and Technology - Northwest Campus. Fritz and colleagues at Ridgestone are financial literacy volunteers for Make A Difference - Wisconsin, a nonprofit which is expanding its reach to students in Waukesha County and elsewhere in the state.  
Photo courtesy of Fred Croen

'It’s truly the basics’

“It’s understanding how to budget and save. Understanding what comes out of your paycheck and how compound interest works,” Campbell said. Other topics include how to open and maintain a bank account, understanding identity theft, the predatory nature of checking stores, and how to properly use a credit card and its pitfalls.

Campbell wants students to think about the long term so even credit scores are discussed, including how they are calculated, how to build one and why it even matters.

“It’s truly the basics,” Campbell said. “It’s at least what every kid should get to hit the ground running after high school.”

Make A Difference - Wisconsin has proven to be successful.

Campbell said post-program tests show that on average at all partner schools, the teens increase their financial literacy by about 33 percent.

Studies have shown that parents won’t necessarily instill these values in their children and the schools often don’t have financial literacy classes.

Campbell said one survey from Charles Schwab indicated parents were more comfortable talking about drugs and sex with their children than money.

Make A Difference - Wisconsin partners with private and public schools in Milwaukee and Waukesha counties, as well as schools in Ozaukee, Kimberly and Eagle River, and even student groups.

Stacy Leuty, a volunteer from Elm Grove, said she had always wanted to be a high school math teacher but ended up becoming an accountant. When she learned about Make A Difference - Wisconsin, she saw a great opportunity. Leuty became a volunteer with the organization about eight years ago, right when it started. Since then she has taught in both inner-city and suburban schools.

“It has really opened my eyes to when I am in the inner city and lot of the kids are the product of their upbringing. They don’t stand a chance if no one works with them,” Leuty said.

While students may not need all the math they learned since kindergarten, when they graduate from high school they need to know how to properly handle their finances, she said.

“What I strive to do is to make them believe in themselves and really motivate them to take interest in their finances,” Leuty said. She estimated that 90 percent of what Make A Difference - Wisconsin teaches can be implemented in everyday activities of the teen’s life.

Fong, who also implements Make A Difference - Wisconsin’s Money Coach programming, said that program takes an even more hands-on approach with the students. She said her students have told her about how they applied the knowledge they learned in the finance classes to everyday life and even helped their family members make better decisions.

While Make A Difference - Wisconsin is operated out of Milwaukee, it has grown its presence in Waukesha County during the past five years.

“Waukesha County has really taken a lead in enhancing the financial literacy of their kids,” Campbell said. “This is an issue that really relates to everyone. It’s across the board. It’s all population, all income levels.”

At a glance

To learn how educators or volunteers can participate, go to,
call 414-273-8101 or email