There's no question that America's young people are desperately in need of financial education. Some schools wedge lessons about interest and savings into math classes or life-skills programs, but for the most part, parents are left with the task of teaching their children how to spend, save, budget and invest.
Well, Warren Buffett, America's top investing guru, has leaped into the breech with "Secret Millionaires Club," an animated web program that teaches children a variety of financial lessons. But while the program offers some great lessons, it seems to be heavily larded with mixed messages and occasional doses of surreality.
Produced by Buffett's company, Berkshire Hathaway, the program seems pretty normal ... at first. The core characters, including Buffett and a trio of teens, should be familiar to any fan of sitcoms. There's the reassuring father, the hyperactive boy, the flighty girl, and the brainy kid.
For that matter, the structure is also pretty standard: In every episode, the kids meets with Buffett to discuss their finances, as well as those of various neighborhood merchants. The children present a problem -- a lemonade stand that isn't getting business or a credit card that is rapidly heading toward its limit, to use two examples -- and the group figures out a solution. Buffett finishes every episode by offering "Words from Warren," a coda that ties everything together.
The episodes are short -- generally between 3 and 4 minutes long -- and fairly lively. Their lessons are clear and useful, especially for young viewers who have never been exposed to concepts like compound interest or financial overextension. For the most part, Buffett's advice is simple and easy to use, and -- unlike his yearly charity lunch date -- it comes for free.
However, there also seems to be more than a hint of the absurd in the show. To begin with, some of the episode titles -- including "Are You Experienced," "Don't Just Say No," and "Learn, Baby, Learn" -- seem to be snarky jokes formulated by a writing staff well-steeped in 1960s counterculture. And the words that come out of Buffett's mouth often seem ponderous and bizarrely philosophical. For example, after a fairly low-key discourse on the dangers of credit, the avuncular Buffett warns the kids that "The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they're too heavy to be broken." One can just imagine the young characters thinking, "Gee, thanks, Søren Kierkegaard, but I just wanted to know why I shouldn't sign up for a high-interest Visa card."
And then there's the show's catchphrase: "The best investment you can make is an investment in yourself. The more you learn, the more you'll earn." In terms of punchy wisdom, it runs a distant second behind Stan Lee's "With great power comes great responsibility," or even GI Joe's "Now you know ... and knowing is half the battle." To make things worse, Buffett slurs a bit on the soundtrack, so it sounds like he's saying "The more you learn, the more you'll learn." Wow, man. Just, wow.
But these are minor critiques. A more serious one is that the show sometimes traffics in financial wisdom that is a few years out of date. For example, when one of the teens gets a credit card, Buffett informs him that he would do better to put his money in the bank, where compound interest would help it grow. Of course, as we at DailyFinance have often noted, many banks no longer give interest on small accounts, those that do offer miniscule rates, and many charge excessive fees -- all factors that could hit Buffett's young friend especially hard.
Admittedly, it's a little hard these days to find safe places for young people to put a little money and watch it grow. On the other hand, Warren Buffett didn't make his reputation by offering facile answers to difficult questions. If "Secret Millionaires Club" wants to help teach children about money, maybe a good route would be to dial back on the easy advice and dial up on the hard-core wisdom from the Oracle of Omaha.
Bruce Watson is DailyFinance's Savings Editor. You can reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.