Perkins School for the Blind Transition Center

Financial Literacy for ASD College Students

I was having lunch with my daughter, a recent college graduate, and she remarked that in her opinion the main thing today’s college students are unprepared for is managing their finances. She said “No one really teaches us everything we need to know. What we really need are courses on financial management. It is true that the complexities of today’s finances are often confusing even for those of us who have been dealing with these issues for years. College students are often flooded with credit card offers upon turning eighteen and many also encounter rental leases and loans for the first time. A majority of college students are unfamiliar with the concept of monthly budgets, monthly payments, late fees and interest. This combined with a barrage of online advertisements, internet scams and marketing that targets the millennial generation makes it difficult for them to manage their money. It is a sobering statistic that the average college student has approximately $2,500 in credit card debt. These issues are compounded in ASD college students who generally have even less experience with monetary matters.

Money Issues and ASD

In my role as director of the OASIS College Support Program at Pace University, I have on occasion received phone calls from alarmed parents such as “How did my daughter spend $400 in two weeks?!” It is not just a lack of experience that contributes to the money issues of ASD students. Many have executive functioning deficits that make planning (budgeting) difficult and their social naiveté causes them to fall prey to internet scams or “too good to be true” deals. As a result, many individuals on the spectrum overpay for items or purchase items they don’t even need or want. The deceptive nature of some advertising is not easily discernible to ASD students and their literal interpretations of ads cause many to lose money because they “can’t read between the lines”. ASD college students are often easy marks because they don’t know the true value of items. One student paid a large sum of money for tickets to an event that was free. It is always challenging when a socially naïve person encounters a financial predator. This is why it is critical that ASD individuals have a sense of financial scams and what kinds of situations to avoid. The following are a few examples:

  • If a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is
  • If you get an e-mail that looks like it’s from your bank and asks for your account info, don’t answer it
  • If someone offers you a great bargain if you pay right away in cash, don’t be pressured to buy quickly
  • If you get an e-mail from another country offering you money if you help them transfer money from that country, don’t answer it.
  • If someone asks you to cash a check for them, don’t, because it could be counterfeit

These are common scams but I’m aware of ASD individuals who have been drawn into them unwittingly.

An additional area of concern is internet shopping and impulsive/compulsive behavior. Walter Mischel’s research in the 60’s and 80’s showed that the ability to delay gratification (i.e. save money) is predictive of an individual’s future success, however we do not actively teach the importance of learning to delay gratification for long-term goals. At present we inhabit a world of marketing geared to instant gratification online. It is estimated that we are exposed to between 4,000 to 5,000 advertisements daily and much of it is on the internet. Spectrum individuals are often impulsive and many are avid collectors and that spend hours shopping online for specific items. Immersion in specific interests can contribute to compulsive buying of collectibles, video games, or movie downloads. Sites such as eBay can become addictive because of the bidding aspect. One individual spent over $1,000 on eBay in one night buying art supplies. The use of debit and credit cards also makes such spending sprees possible. Our society’s use of “plastic money” makes it all too easy to keep spending without the constraint of exchanging money. For individuals with ASD this can have very negative results. Many don’t know how much items or services really cost because they don’t need to be aware. While teaching a recent financial literacy seminar to ASD students, it was surprising to learn that they knew nothing about credit card interest. Most of these students said their parents manage the credit card bill so they were not aware of the consequences of accumulating credit card debt. A possible solution to this lack of awareness is for parents to create a PayPal student account, or get a Bill My Parents Later Prepaid Teen Credit Card from MasterCard or a PASS card from American Express. These options allow parents to set limits and monitor spending.

Money Can’t Buy You Love (or Friends)

Trusting ASD individuals are often used by others. A most unfortunate aspect of their lack of social awareness is that they end up paying for meals, giving away prized items, and loaning money to unscrupulous types that pretend to be their “friends.” Many on the spectrum are generous people who desperately want relationships and may even allow themselves to be taken advantage of in exchange for a friend. ASD individuals often don’t have much relationship experiences to draw upon so it is essential that they understand what constitutes a healthy and balanced relationship in terms of money. Romantic relationships can be even more precarious in this regard. Purchasing gifts for the object of one’s affection is risky particularly if you don’t know them well or met online. Lavish expenditures can cause people to feel uncomfortable as well as bring out the predatory nature of some. There are numerous examples of ASD individuals who have turned over their credit cards to devious types who exploited them. As such, ASD individuals should be very reticent to offer to pay for anything until they know the person well. The best course is to share expenses most of the time.

Educational Solutions

Parents of ASD individuals can teach financial literacy in a variety of ways. The website has information on teaching young children, curriculums, and financial game software such as My Mathematical Life Game (how to create budgets, calculate interest, and understand credit), Financial Football, or Financial Soccer (financial management). Other games that were created by Staples to teach saving principles are Bite Nightclub (with vampires!), Celebrity Calamity and Refund Rush. Most ASD students will benefit from visual budgets displays created on an Excel spreadsheet. Monthly college expenses such as transportation, supplies and entertainment are budgeted so the student can be aware of money available for each.

* This article is based on a presentation at the 2013 AHA spring conference and an article in the fall 2013 edition of AHA’s On The Spectrum.

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