A Modest Proposal for Curing Our Economic Woes: Mandatory Home Ec

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Serious student cutting fabric in home economics classroom
Do you ever wonder why and how America got into the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression? The answer is actually pretty simple: It's because you didn't take home ec in high school.

I know, I know: When discussing America's economic woes, it's easy to fall into the trap of blaming the entire financial crisis on a single cause. But while it's fun to blame every problem on entitlement spending or low tax rates, the military industrial complex or socialists, Barack Obama or Antonin Scalia, the truth is usually more complex. Then again, complex explanations only work if the audience is equipped to understand them.

And that's where home economics comes in.

When most people think of home ec, the first things that come to mind are skills like cooking and sewing. In a broader sense, however, teaching those things was only a small part of why the course was created -- and what it offered students. As Ruth Graham recently noted in the Boston Globe, the overarching goal of home economics was to help young people learn how to run an efficient household -- and that included basic financial skills like how to make a budget, balance a checkbook and shop efficiently.

Beyond that, however, home ec skills like cooking, cleaning and sewing are themselves money-savers. Homemade meals tend to be cheaper -- and healthier -- than convenience foods. The abilities to sew adequately, clean efficiently and comparison shop can save a household untold amounts of money.

A Victim of Its Own Success, and the Times

In some ways, home ec was done in by its own success: As basic household skills became almost ubiquitous, critics of the class could reasonably ask why it was necessary to teach it in schools. At the same time, home ec's focus on household skills seemed to be enforcing gender norms -- a factor that put it in the crosshairs of feminist critics like Robin Morgan. By the 1990s, when it changed its name to Family and Consumer Sciences, the class had become an anachronism, a relic left over from the days of "The Donna Reed Show" and "Father Knows Best."

%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%Fast-forward 20 years, and we find our society facing a frightening dearth of personal finance knowledge. For the last several years, the Treasury Department and the Department of Education have administered a basic financial literacy test to high school students. On average, the kids scored just 70 percent. The results of a 10-year survey by the Jumpstart Coalition for Financial Literacy were even more dire: they found that yearly scores ranged as low as 48.3 percent. And milennials aren't the only ones who have problems with basic financial knowledge: The average score on FINRA's five-question financial literacy quiz is 58 percent.

A growing body of critics and pundits are calling for a major facelift for home ec, but this -- like many recently suggested solutions to long-standing economic problems -- closes the barn door long after the horse has fled. A freshly-relevant home ec program won't do too much good for the millennials and Gen Xers who managed to make it through school without learning the basic life skills a good home ec course would have provided.

But even if you never learned how to cook, sew and run a fiscally-sustainable and efficient home, take heart: There are a growing number of books available to help you catch up on the lessons you missed. And, for that matter, there are numerous websites (ahem!) that offer information on ethical buying and careful consumerism. Just because your local educational system failed you, there's no reason that you have to fail yourself.

Bruce Watson is DailyFinance's Savings Editor. You can reach him by e-mail at bruce.watson@teamaol.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.

How A Family Of Four Manages To Live Well On Just $14,000 Per Year
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A Modest Proposal for Curing Our Economic Woes: Mandatory Home Ec

"My husband told me he'd heard about this book, ["America's Cheapest Family Gets You Right on the Money]," she said. "We talked about it over the phone and I read it and thought how it could apply to us."

The couple had a single savings goal in mind –– scraping together $30,000 for a downpayment on their home in their native Henderson, Nevada.

The mindless spending was out, and Wagasky came up with a budget she could make work.
"I changed the way I was grocery shopping and started working my way up, " she said.

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Wagasky barely knew her way around a kitchen when she started her money makeover.

Now she's an avid cookbook collector (she checks them out from libraries or asks for them as gifts to save), and it's one of the simplest ways she's managed to cutback on spending.

With a $7 bread-maker she scored at a local thrift shop, she never spends on store bought slices. She's not shy about professing her love for wholesale stores like Costco, which is her go-to source for baking ingredients.

Above Wagasky's twist on homemade Sloppy Joe's.

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"Everything must be budgeted," Wagasky wrote in a June entry on her blog. "From family outings, to toiletries to clothes purchases. It must be budgeted."

And she takes Do-It-Yourself to the extreme. Everything from laundry soap and clothing to the kitchen her husband installed in their new home was either crafted by hand or thrifted.
She swears by this home-made laundry detergent recipe. (pictured above)

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When it come to cutting costs, cable was as easy luxury to part ways with.

With two children aged 6 and 8 to entertain, Wagasky invests $14.99 in a Netflix plan and recently added Hulu to the mix.

The family also uses a simple antennae to pick up basic cable channels.

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With a single source of fixed income, there's no room for impulse purchases in the Wagasky household.

They budget $400 for groceries each month and that's it.

"Once that $400 is gone, it is gone," she writes. "There are no extra shopping trips made because there is no more money."

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Wagasky said they have no credit debt, but they do charge emergency expenses on plastic when absolutely necessary.

"We recently had some medical bills we had to pay, and we were able to take our savings and pay those down as fast as we could," she said.

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With gas prices creeping higher each all the time, the Wagaskys watch their mileage like hawks.

That means combining errands together and doing all they can to make one take of gas last a month.

"We know we don't get to drive and visit family often, so when we do we cherish it," she wrote in a blog entry.

"We don't go just for an hour, we stay and visit and even run errands that may be close to where we have family. We try to remember that when the gas is gone...it is gone."

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After Wagasky's husband left active duty and started school, the couple knew they would only have $14,000 per year to live on.

So they paid off the $8,000 he owed on his truck while he was earning more and they could afford the expense.

They also bought a van, which they saved $10,000 for initially and were able to pay the remaining $12,000 owed within a year.

Having zero car payments is a nice relief.

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Like anyone with simple math skills, Wagasky was quick to realize how much cash she was wasting on prepackaged snacks for her children.

She cut them out completely and whips up homemade granola bars and trail mix instead.

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If you're on a tight food budget, your freezer will become your best friend.

Wagasky chops vegetables and fruits and freezes them for a month. She actually does the same for dairy products like cheese, butter and yogurt.

"I am able to freeze about 8 gallons of milk each month," she writes. "They sit at the bottom of my freezer and we thaw them out when we need them." Baked goods get the same chilly treatment.

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Wagasky was dubious about joining a food co-op, but after three months, she realized she would never beat the savings or quality she found.

Food co-ops pool membership fees together in order to fund a monthly harvest that's distributed at designated pick-up points.

A couple of times per month, Wagasky gets a basketful of in-season produce for $15 –– way better bargain than she'd ever find in stores.

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By the time Wagasky's husband came home from Iraq, they had managed to scrape together the $30,000 they needed for a downpayment on a home.

"But we decided the best option would be not to have a mortgage payment at all," she said. "We found a fixer-upper that didn't have a kitchen ... and we paid cash."

Price tag: $28,000. With the leftover cash, they were able to finish the kitchen and install wood flooring throughout the house.

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