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Ryan Jerue has a job, a business, a bank account and has started investing. He also captains a team of students who recently took third place in a national competition where they fielded questions about personal finance, technology, health and safety, the environment as well as consumer rights and responsibilities. (He also placed third individually in the health and safety category.)

And by the way, he’s still a senior in high school.

His teammate Cassidy Laidlaw, also a senior, has a bank account, a credit card and has already started building his credit history. He has a stock portfolio and — aware of the power of compound interest — plans to start saving for retirement. (He placed second in the individual technology assessment at the national competition.)

In other words, these high schoolers are smarter about money than many adults.

Rhode Island is one of the many states across the country that participates in the LifeSmarts program. Developed in 1994 by the National Consumers League, LifeSmarts helps high school students “enter the real world as smart adult consumers.”

It appears to be working. I recently served as a judge for the national competition, which brought students from 34 states to Orlando, Fla. CNBC’s Herb Weisbaum, aka “The ConsumerMan,” served as Quiz Master for the final rounds of competition, where students fielded a wide variety of questions, many of which would have stumped me. Fortunately judges had both the questions and the answers.

Just as impressive as the knowledge these kids displayed was the fact that many of them participate in the program outside of their classrooms, spending what could be free time after school, on weekends and during vacation learning about topics many adults learn only in the School of Hard Knocks.

RI-inset“Many of the students I bring to the competition have a chance to explore personal finance,” says their coach Karen Proule, a business teacher at Barrington High. “It is a subject that they know little about since they do not take this course in high school. Teaching them even the basics satisfies me because I can warn them about identity theft, talk to them about insurance, talk about credit cards, touch upon investing, etc.  So I feel I fill a small component of their academic life and they walk away with a knowledge that they usually don’t cover in their courses.”

Jerue says the tips he has picked up have already paid off. “I have helped relatives with complaints about telemarketers,” he says. Laidlaw says it’s been particularly helpful to him “in terms of the cost of college — I can more effectively plan.”

For both competitors, it was their second time competing at the national level, something they worked hard to prepare for despite their already challenging course loads at school. Laidlaw even rigged up his own buzzer system so they could practice responding quickly.

Like most of the students I spoke with at the competition, they had great things to say about the program. Proule says that her students often feel that way. “Many times they have said that they thought that LifeSmarts and the national competition was one of the greatest memories of their high school career,” she says.

Want to see whether you know as much as the high schoolers who compete? Try your hand at the daily quiz featured at LifeSmarts.org. You can also find out how to get involved as a volunteer at the same site. Helping our kids become smarter about personal finance and other essential life skills is no doubt one of the best investments we can make in their futures — and in all of ours.

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Feature image: Jack Hollingsworth / Inset image: Jonathan Phillips

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