02/12/2022

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‘M is for Money’: Middletown High School teacher publishes children’s book to start kids thinking about personal finance at early age | Economy & business

After Rob Phelan’s son was born, he started looking for a book he could use to help explain basic money concepts to him — something age-appropriate that approached personal finance in a fun and easy-to-understand way.

He couldn’t find one. So, Phelan, a math and personal finance teacher at Middletown High School, decided to write one himself.

“M is for Money,” a colorful picture book that walks readers through the ABCs of dollars and cents, was published Nov. 13. It is Phelan’s second published work, after “The Simple StartUp,” his 2020 guidebook for students interested in starting their own businesses.

“I wanted to write a book that would help encourage parents, caregivers and teachers to start talking about money in a comfortable and safe way,” Phelan said.

Written for a target audience of 3- to 8-year-olds, “M is for Money” focuses on a letter of the alphabet on each page and a money word that starts with that letter. The book explains each word in simple language and provides an illustration that shows the word being used in a positive way, Phelan said.

Along the way, the character Stash the Squirrel engages readers by asking them questions about each focus word: “What would you use an allowance for?” “What can you buy for $1?” “How do you like to help people?” “What are some ways you could earn money?”

“It provides a really easy platform for the kid and the adult to start talking about money and allows the adults to maybe avoid [embarrassment] that we might feel because we haven’t handled money really well in the past,” Phelan said.

Phelan hasn’t always been the personal finance champion he is now.

When he first started dating the woman who would become his wife, she was the “money person” in their relationship, as he put it. But before they got married, she told him she wanted his help in making financial decisions and asked him to learn more about how to handle money.

So, he started diving into personal finance, he recalled, listening to podcasts and eventually hosting a workshop at Catoctin High School, where he was teaching at the time, that allowed parents and teenagers to learn about money together.

He also teamed up with “Choose FI,” a Richmond, Virginia-based podcast, to create a free financial literacy curriculum for grades pre-K through 12.

Financial responsibility “should be considered a core life skill that we should be learning in school,” Phelan said. He pointed to research that shows students who learn about personal finance in school go on to make better financial decisions, including ones that involve credit card and student loan debt and home ownership.

This is a trend he’s observed among his own students, he said.

“They’re just making smarter decisions,” he said, “whether it’s to stay in-state for college or do two years of community college and then go to a four-year or go to a certification program instead of going to college.”

Phelan was mentoring a young group of entrepreneurs at the time he started writing “M is for Money” and decided to use the process as an educational opportunity.

Using the online fundraising platform Kickstarter, Phelan raised about $14,000 — enough to fund the total cost of producing, illustrating and publishing “M is for Money.”

“That’s been a really cool experience that I feel like has made doing a project like this so fun,” he said, “because there isn’t a ton of money put in on my end where I’m like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to sell 10,000 books that are in my basement right now because I’m going to lose money otherwise.’”

In writing “M is for Money,” Phelan wanted to create a book that was for everyone, not just people who looked like him. Besides Stash the Squirrel, “M is for Money” features 60 characters, each unique in their appearance, family structure and ability.

“It was definitely meant to be a book that as many kids as possible could see themselves in,” he said.

Phelan has donated about 750 copies of “M is for Money” to the Maryland Book Bank and schools and libraries across the state, he said. Middletown Valley Bank, Nymeo Federal Credit Union and First United have also picked up copies of the book to give to parents opening bank accounts for their children.

It’s been rewarding to hear from teachers who have read “M is for Money” to their students and used it to design personal finance workshops. Parents have also reached out to him to share the ways the book has made it easier to talk about money with their children, Phelan said.

Now, he finally has the book for his son he’s been looking for. He’s read “M is for Money” with his 2-year-old many times, and the child can recognize many of the terms defined in its pages.

The little boy points out the book when he sees it at his friends’ houses, libraries or Curious Iguana in downtown Frederick, Phelan said. “He’s like, ‘Oh, that’s Daddy’s book!’”

Follow Angela Roberts on Twitter: @24_angier