For most teens, money is a gotta-have-it, wanna-spend-it commodity. But for foster teens, who often bounce from home to home in their young years, it's far more complicated.
There's no mom or dad doling out a weekly allowance. No one showering them with cash gifts on birthdays or holidays. No one sitting them down for financial pep talks.
Many, in fact, have never been inside a bank. Yet once they turn 18, most are thrust out into the real world to fend for themselves financially.
"Many have never seen anyone leave home for a job and return with a paycheck. The things most of us learn from our families, they don't," said Bill Ryland, administrator of Koinonia Homes for Teens in Loomis, which runs a high school, therapy programs and group homes for 30 foster teens recovering from alcohol or drug abuse. "Many leave the foster system with nothing."
Koinonia and three other foster teen programs in the Sacramento region are trying to change that reality.
Under a program run by United Way, dozens of older foster teens in five counties are earning money, opening their first savings accounts and getting financial skills. By the time they graduate from high school, those who've completed United Way's "Sense-Ability" program will have learned how to juggle a monthly budget, shop for groceries, buy car insurance, rent an apartment and other basic life skills.
And, perhaps most enticing to these older teens, they can leave foster care with as much as $3,000 in savings money intended to launch them into jobs or college.
Those dollars, deposited into special savings accounts called Independent Development Accounts, are opened by each teen at participating local banks, including Bank of America or Citibank.
"It's a very cost-effective program," said Tom Bennett, a vice president with United Way's California Capital Region, which set aside $170,000 this school year for the IDA program. "A lot of parents teach their kids about money and savings, but foster youth don't necessarily get that chance. We're offering something they haven't been offered: financial literacy."
Without that safety net, the outlook for teens who "emancipate" out of the foster care system at age 18 is bleak. According to United Way statistics pulled from several national studies, only about half of foster teens leave the system with a high school diploma. Ten percent have no means of financial support. Only 29 percent find employment, primarily part-time jobs.
IDAs are an effort to change that. Using an "incentivized learning" plan, teens earn anywhere from $10 to $100 for each financial or life-skills goal they meet. Pull up their GPA to a 3.0: $25. Create a résumé: $10. Three hours of community service: $20. Attend a financial literacy workshop on a Saturday: $100.
They also must attend 10 to 20 hours of financial literacy classes. At Koinonia, for instance, teens get a weekly session by a Bank of America supervisor who walks them through everything from the dangers of credit card abuse to figuring out a monthly budget, including whether they can afford cable TV or a nice car.
At the Child Abuse Prevention Council of Sacramento, which has enrolled 75 of its 500 foster teens in Sacramento and Yolo counties in the IDA program, each student is assigned an AmeriCorps mentor who helps set financial goals and sharpen financial skills.
AmeriCorps member Stephen Dimal, 22, who works with eight foster teens at three Sacramento City Unified high schools, says the IDA program delivers "eye-openers."
"They start to get it that savings is making sure your whole paycheck is not spent every month," he said. "It's about learning what's a necessity, what's a want, what's a luxury."
On a recent grocery shopping trip to Raley's, where Dimal gave them a hypothetical $150 to buy a month's worth of groceries, "You can see the light bulb go on in their heads," he said, when they realize they can stretch their budget by buying cheaper in bulk, using coupons, choosing generic brands. Not to mention the discovery of the difference in price and nutritional value between a bag of chips and a pound of potatoes. For 18-year-old Kenneth Avila, who's been living in a Koinonia group home for a year after overcoming substance abuse, the IDA program was "my first time getting something like a real paycheck."
Between a supervising job at PRIDE Industries, his IDA earnings and two United Way matching grants of $1,000, Avila expects to leave foster care in late June with close to $3,000 in savings. Leaving behind a troubled upbringing in Monterey County, he's found a local family to live with and plans to enroll in September at William Jessup University in Rocklin, majoring in public policy or youth ministry.
"IDA is one of the biggest chances I've had. It's been so much help," said Avila.
Virgil West, 16, one of the few Koinonia teens who's moving back home with his biological family, said, "My IDA is going to help me with everything when I get out: a laptop, a driver's license, maybe even a barbecue."
For a community service project, Virgil took about $95 out of his IDA account to buy hot dogs, sodas and snacks for a neighborhood open house at his Loomis group residence. "When people think of group homes, they think of trouble-making kids," said West, "so I wanted to organize a community event to show how this program changes us."
The IDA program can be a life-changer for these teens, say program supervisors.
"It motivates them to learn things they would not necessarily have thought were important: managing a checkbook, walking inside a bank, coming up with a budget even the delayed gratification of learning how to save," said Stephanie Biegler, director of Sacramento's Child Abuse Prevention Council.
"They desperately want these skills. With the IDA program, we reward them and honor them for their willingness to grow and learn. That's the most touching part."