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Most financial literacy efforts in schools don’t improve people’s behavior later in life. That could be because we’re focusing on the wrong things.

Trying to teach teenagers how to shop for a mortgage, for example, may be an exercise in futility. The information simply isn’t relevant to them — yet. By the time they are ready to buy a home, the loans available and the rules surrounding them may have changed.

Instead, we should be teaching kids the habits that make savvy consumers. These four skills make a difference regardless of someone’s circumstances or the economic climate:

Skepticism. Smart consumers need to think critically about the advertising, offers and advice that bombard them every day. They need to look beyond surfaces to determine what’s really being sold to them, and why.

“We need to ask, ‘What is the motivation of the entity that’s giving me this information?’” says Josh Golin, executive director of the advocacy group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

Some people are unnerved by the idea of teaching skepticism to children, worrying that it could foster distrust, inaction and negative thinking.

“Not all marketing is deception and not all advisers are people only eager to take your money,” says financial literacy expert Annamaria Lusardi, economics professor at the George Washington University School of Business.

Others, including the nonprofit financial literacy advocate Foolproof Foundation, say healthy skepticism can be taught in an age-appropriate way that helps young people feel empowered rather than paralyzed.

“I don’t think we can teach 6-year-olds skepticism, but by the time children are in middle school they’re able to understand the concepts of persuasive intent and self-interest,” Golin says.

Discernment. Research and comparison shopping may be second nature to the financially savvy, but they’re skills like any other that need to be learned – and many adults don’t have them, says financial literacy expert and Rutgers University professor Barbara O’Neill.

O’Neill emphasizes the “rule of three” in her financial literacy courses. O’Neill has students research three credit card offers, for example, comparing the interest rates, penalty rates, fees and rewards for each, and evaluating which might be best for their particular situation.

The exercise gives students practice in comparison shopping, but also gives them a handy rule of thumb for other decisions.

“Whether they’re hiring a plumber or buying a car, they need to check at least three different sources,” O’Neill says.

Planning. Being able to anticipate setbacks and challenges is as important as setting goals. People who plan ahead for large, irregular expenses are 10 times as likely to be financially healthy as those who don’t, according to a 2015 study by the Center for Financial Services Innovation, a nonprofit that promotes financial health.

Financial literacy education often focuses on goal-based planning, such as budgeting for retirement or a down payment, or saving a set amount for emergencies, notes John Thompson , CFSI chief program officer. That’s important, he says, but perhaps not as relevant to early-stage workers as building financial flexibility into their lives.

Schools can teach the importance of having access to lower-cost lines of credit, such as a credit card with a reasonable interest rate, in addition to savings. Too often cash-strapped young people turn to payday lenders and other high-cost credit because they haven’t planned for the unexpected, Thompson says.

“You want to make sure you have access to the tools and products you need before a problem presents itself,” Thompson says. “When you have to act immediately, your options are fewer.”

Saving. A regular savings habit is also associated with financial health, the CFSI study found. The act of saving is more important than the amounts, Thompson says.

“A few hundred dollars can really make a difference,” he says.

Regular doesn’t necessarily mean automatic. People who automate their savings, through paycheck contributions to 401(k)s or recurring transfers from their checking accounts, do tend to save more. But automation requires relatively stable finances, O’Neill points out.

“People with these volatile incomes can’t do anything automatically,” O’Neill says. “They need the flexibility to juggle.”

Some startups are betting that smarter apps can help, either by helping people save or invest small amounts (Digit and Acorns are examples) or by smoothing out incomes using savings and payday advances (Even). Schools can teach kids to do something similar by tracking the ups and downs of their incomes, and saving when they have surpluses.

lweston@nerdwallet.com

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