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Focus placed on finances for 13- to 33-year-olds

Chicago Sun-Times | Nov 21, 2009

Edward Sandrick wants his 20-something peers to understand the value of saving and handling money, and he intends to offer the advice online.  Sandrick, 25, of Naperville, on Friday won third place and a grant from Mobilize.org, a nonprofit group aimed at increasing civic activity by the millennial generation — ages 13 to 33 — so he can create downloadable spending and wealth diaries for cell phones, handheld devices, smart phones and other computers.

Edward SandrickEdward Sandrick, whose mom, Alice Wood founded Wealth Watchers International, has entered a contest for a grant that would allow the company to offer its money-management programs as downloadable programs for smart phones, computers, laptops and personal hand-helds like Blackberries and iPhones.
(Rich Hein/Sun-Times)

A total of $25,000 will be divided among the five Mobilize.org winners.

"I am honored because every proposal was well-done," said Sandrick, who was awarded the grant while attending the first Chicago summit on young people’s finances co-produced and co-sponsored by Mobilize.org and the nonprofit Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which aims to increase awareness of the economic issues facing young people.

The summit was meant to help the millennials take charge of their financial well-being and to identify economic issues that young people face, such as student-loan debt, credit-card debt, high unemployment rates and lack of health insurance coverage.

The other winners, starting with first place, include Daniel Kaufman, who proposed asking people to donate 1 percent of their yearly incomes to a philanthropic cause; Eric Heis’ Web-based video game to raise fiscal awareness among millennials; Alicia Holmes’ financial literacy program for 17- to 19-year-olds and a Skype-enabled educational partnership between colleges and high schools, and Chris Golden and Nick Troiano’s "volun-tweet" application to measure the impact of volunteerism through social networking.

"I want to create an electronic version of a ‘Wealth Watchers’ journal so people can set goals for spending and determine down to the day what they can spend without going into debt," Sandrick said.

Sandrick knows only too well the story behind the Wealth Watchers’ journal. His mother, Alice Wood, suffered a brain injury after her oxygen mask failed in an emergency and she was without oxygen during an airline flight from Colorado back home to Chicago nine years ago.

Wood started making mistakes with money — a frightening development that led her to start writing down every single thing she spent.

"She would forget my name or call me by my brother’s name. She did mindless things that amounted to a big problem," Sandrick said.

Wood was able to get treatment, but in her struggle to recover, she founded Wealth Watchers International (ewealthwatchers.com), a program based on the tenants of Weight Watchers and aimed at helping people track their spending and start saving.

Wood, an estate-planning attorney, has written Wealth Watchers: A Simple Program to Help You Spend Less and Save More, due out in January ($19.95 in paperback).

Sandrick says young people get a skewed sense of spending because swiping a credit card gives a false sense of wealth. And the average millennial who has graduated college is carrying $27,000 in student-loan debt.

Keeping the journal "is about daily accountability to yourself," and can help young people understand where they are spending money, he said.

"I’m not under the impression that Wealth Watchers will solve everything, but it’s going to take individual accountability" to get people to return to savings and get through today’s tough economic times, Sandrick said.

The Peterson Foundation has created online tools of its own to get kids to realize the consequences of their spending.

A Debt Ski video game (Debtski.com) features a piggy bank pig riding a jet ski, and challenges young people to avoid destructive financial behavior. Players maneuver the character, Piggy Banks, through obstacles to limit his debt, increase his savings, and keep him happy. The game was developed with help from mtvU, MTV’s college network.

Another game, Budget Ball (Budgetball.org), is patterned after ultimate frisbee, and requires players to pick a strategy of either going into debt to buy advantages, such as an extra player, or taking sacrifices to earn bucks that convert into points at the game’s end.

"Not all debt is bad. We just want young people to consider the consequences of it, and to develop a strategy," said Susan Tanaka, the Peterson Foundation’s director of citizen education and engagement.

The Web also is proving a crucial component of Chicago teen entrepreneur Zoe Damacela, a 17-year-old senior at Whitney Young High School, who has been recognized for her business acumen.

Damacela, who lives on the West Side, won a $5,000 second-place prize for her business plan in the 2009 OppenheimerFunds/National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge. She got to meet President Obama at the White House.

She uses silks, satins, burlaps and what she calls "weird" fabrics as she sews her creations and has sold her custom-made designs from $125 for an everyday dress to $1,000 for a wedding dress. She has attracted customers through word of mouth, social networking, her Web site, ZoeDamacela.com, and her blog, ZoeDamacela.blogspot.com.

Damacela has hired her first two employees — part-time seventh graders — and has started selling clothes to customers in New York who’ve found her online.

"I get a lot of customers through Facebook and MySpace," she said.

She said she has learned by operating her business how to manage money.

"I lost money on the first dress I sold. The fabric cost more than what I sold it for," she said.