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Get Your Freak On

PenFinancial Credit Union members Adam Vassallo and Vincent Atallah instruct students in Ontario about financial literacy in their Don't Freak Out! program.

At 20 years of age, Adam Vassallo and Vincent Atallah, members of Ontario’s PenFinancial Credit Union (21,000 members, $545 million in assets) are more money-savvy than most young adults. As the co-founders of Don’t Freak Out!, they are helping high school students throughout the Greater Toronto Area and Niagara Region learn how to navigate the tricky financial pathway into adulthood without stumbling into major money roadblocks. Best of all, the lessons that Vassallo and Atallah are passing on aren’t rules gleaned from dry, how-to books about personal budgeting or financial planning. Rather, they are lessons that Atallah and Vassallo learned in the trenches of adolescence, succumbing to—then learning how to avoid—the many consumer temptations that can upend a young adult’s credit rating, not to mention empty their wallet.

Vassallo, a third-year biomedical sciences student at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., also operates a business giving private swimming lessons, a company that grew out of his first job as a lifeguard in his hometown of St. Catharines, Ont. This is where Vassallo met Atallah, who were both student leaders on the St. Catharines’ mayor’s advisory council.

As a busy working student, Vassallo stays on top of his academic and extra-curricular activities by keeping two large calendar boards marked with all relevant due dates above his desk — and abstaining from Netflix. “A huge time-saver,” he says of the latter. Oh, and he always pays down his credit card in full every 10 days, to avoid paying any interest fees that might accrue thanks to a weakness for designer denim. Yes, that’s every 10 days.

Atallah, a third-year student at the University of Ottawa, studying corporate communications and business, has worked in retail (Tim Horton’s, American Eagle, Danier, Roots, among others) since he was an early teen – long enough to pay off a racing-red Kia Forte. “I’m a car nut,” he admits. Like Vassallo, he has been able to live within his means and manage his student debt by becoming a master of time-management and keeping a very detailed personal budget. “It’s one thing to have it all it in your head but to actually write it out by hand is very powerful,” he says.

“Our research shows that students are much more willing to listen to their peers.” – Vincent Atallah

Still, for all their financial acumen and impressive self-control, both have fallen prey to a temptation to which almost everyone can relate: the dreaded, budget-derailing Starbucks habit. Atallah’s “aha” moment occurred in Grade 12. Every morning, he’d go to his first class with a latte in hand. “Have you ever calculated how much that costs?” his teacher asked one day. She did the math on the chalkboard. “It worked out to something like $3,600 a year,” Atallah recalls. “What a terrible waste of money.”

Vassallo’s Starbucks’ epiphany came the following year, when he was a first-year university student living away from home for the first time. “It’s very alluring, having all this freedom but it’s also very easy to become careless,” he says. “I clued in about halfway through the year. I thought, ‘Hey, I have coffee included in my meal plan. I can go to the dining hall and get it for free.’ ”

Sometimes, it is the little financial decisions—as small as the accrued cost of a Starbucks latte—for which students are not prepared when they hit university. As Canadian household debt soars to record-high levels—Statistics Canada recently reported that citizens now owe $1.67 in credit market debt for every dollar of adjusted household disposable income—it is never too early to learn those crucial lessons, which often, unfortunately, aren’t taught in school.

Thanks to Vassallo and Atallah, 600 high-school students from the Regional Municipality of Niagara learned some of these valuable lessons, and more, during a day-long financial literacy seminar held over two consecutive days at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario last February. Sponsored by PenFinancial Credit Union (where Atallah also worked as a teller in high school), the annual seminar, now in its second year, featured keynote talks from millennial financial coaches, in addition to smaller, interactive breakout sessions on bank accounts, managing credit, scholarships and bursaries, budgeting, expenses and spending habits.

Now that the Ontario Ministry of Education has announced it will be rolling out a pilot-learning module on financial literacy in high school, it appears that Don’t Freak Out! has tapped into a much larger need, while showing potential for business growth. “We have a lot of experience with the provincial politics,” says Atallah, explaining how they both sat on curriculum review boards during high school. “We definitely see this as an opportunity.”

While neither young men claim to be financial experts, they do have the advantage of youth on their side. “We’re only four years out of high school ourselves,” says Atallah. “Our research shows that students are much more willing to listen to their peers. When we’re planning our seminars, we’re always thinking, ‘If we were listening to this, would we be bored?’ ”

In addition to utilizing technology as much as possible, the seminar includes a take-home tool, a decision-making simulation that can help attendees think through future spending choices, whether buying a Starbucks latte or deciding which post-secondary institution to attend. “At the end of the day, I sat down in the auditorium while they were filling out” the simulation, says Vassallo. “It was late and they’d been given a lot of information. I half expected to see most of them on the phone or maybe even sleeping. But as I looked around, everyone was really thinking critically. I thought, ‘Wow, if they are fully engaged with this, we are doing something right and we are doing something that really matters to these students.’ ” ◊