How children in the UAE are learning to 'squirrel away' money

Financial literacy platform Squirrel Education teaches five to 18-year-olds about saving, budgeting, mindful spending and risk management through fun scenarios

Early financial education can help to foster strong money management skills in adulthood, experts say. Getty
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Saeed Smith and his wife were pleased to hear their son Kasim, nine, talk proudly about having paid his bills on time.

It was a principle the couple had not considered actively teaching their son, according to Mr Smith, who is the head of learning and teaching at Raha International School in Khalifa City, Abu Dhabi.

Kasim, a grade three student at the same school, has been learning about money management through Squirrel Education, a digital learning platform that pioneers financial literacy solutions for children aged between five and 18.

Kasim Smith, a grade three pupil at Raha International School, has been learning money management skills through Squirrel Education. Khushnum Bhandari / The National

“If we had tried to talk to our kids about the importance of paying bills, it probably would have been boring, but Squirrel uses the concept in a way that is fun and digestible,” Mr Smith says.

“Since basic financial literacy is usually covered as a part of the maths curriculum, the focus is often on understanding the calculations that facilitate our financial transactions.

“While this is important, we have been in need of a curriculum that helps us to teach and learn about the consequences of our spending and planning behaviours; this helps us to put those financial calculations into context.

“I think that platforms like Squirrel are great for helping to start these kinds of conversations in school and at home.”

Squirrel, which was launched at the Abu Dhabi Global Market in April 2022, gamifies the decisions that adults make on a daily basis and provides incentives for pupils to learn about financial literacy through a rewards programme embedded into a school's curriculum.

Through a series of fun and competitive scenarios, children are taught about investing, savings accounts, budget management, bill payments, as well as how to prepare for emergency expenses, all with minimal impact on their academic workload.

Research has shown that children begin to develop money habits from an early age. Early financial education can help to foster strong money management skills in adulthood, experts say.

Fifty-nine per cent of 2,046 adult Americans polled in a Charles Schwab Financial Literacy survey in 2020 cited the value of saving money as a key lesson to be taught to children.

This was followed by the need to teach basic money management skills (52 per cent), while 51 per cent of respondents said setting financial goals and working towards them were important.

Squirrel Education aims to provide children not just traditional financial knowledge, such as what a bank or savings account is or why they should save towards retirement.

It also wants to offer children an environment to practise those decisions, understand the consequences and hone those skills consistently, according to British co-founder Ben Bolger, who is also a financial planner in Abu Dhabi.

“If children log into our platform five to 10 minutes per session for two to three times a week and if this compounds over multiple academic years, then you will start seeing behavioural formation,” the former professional rugby league player says.

“We have the ability to simulate many real-life financial scenarios that adults face. We wanted to give children an environment where they could practise everything they could face in a real world.”

Besides the classroom rewards programme, where children earn rewards for good behaviour, the Squirrel platform also pays them a weekly salary.

This virtual money can be used to pay bills, save for emergency expenses, prepare for positive and negative life events, or spend on their virtual avatars.

They are given an opportunity to earn an income, budget money, spend in the marketplace, move money to different accounts on the platform, understand liabilities, manage risk, be able to manage emotions around purchases and be more mindful of their money, Mr Bolger says.

Ben Bolger, is a financial planner who has just released a personal finance podcast for expats, The Expat Blueprint.,Vidhyaa Chandramohan for The National

The platform rewards children for building good money habits. An in-class leader board rewards children who interact the most with the platform.

“I’ve learnt how to spend my money in sensible ways and think about my purchases,” says Lily Faulkner, 11, a grade six student at British School Al Khubairat, Abu Dhabi, and a Squirrel Education user.

“I hope that it helps me make better decisions around my financials, which is hugely important as I grow up.”

Lily says the lessons imparted on the platform have made it easier to understand the essentials of money management such as saving and building an emergency fund.

“My friends and I now tend to discuss better ways of saving, not buying as much stuff and saving for the future.”

Squirrel brings financial literacy into the consciousness and it becomes an everyday conversation, according to Ian Faulkner, Lily’s father.

Using Squirrel has not affected children’s workload because they see it as more fun than work, he says.

“The key change for me is that Lily actually talks about savings rather than spend, spend, spend,” Mr Faulkner says.

Ian Faulkner watches daughter Lily, 11, and son Jack, eight, learn money management skills on the Squirrel Education platform. Photo: Ian Faulkner

“Financial literacy is a critical skill to develop, and I’m really pleased that it is becoming a common discussion, helping them to develop for later years.”

The Squirrel platform was launched last November and has already signed up 5,000 pupils in countries including the UAE, the UK, Thailand, Egypt, Australia and Vietnam. It is free of charge for schools.

The dialogue around financial literacy has gone through the roof in classrooms, says Mr Bolger.

Now, there is no burden on teachers to take the time out to deliver a 30-minute lesson on financial literacy, he says.

“Children are doing the course in the back end on our platform and having organic conversations with teachers and their peers on financial literacy,” Mr Bolger says.

Al Muna Academy in Abu Dhabi signed up pupil in year six — aged 10 to 11 — in the pilot phase of Squirrel last October.

“We were looking for ways to improve financial literacy among children and develop it as a life skill,” says Greg De Souza, assistant principal at the school.

“Rather than have it in the curriculum a few times a year, we wanted to embed that learning. We wanted children to understand the value of money and its day-to-day uses such as earning, spending and saving.”

Since signing up on the platform, children now take money seriously and see the value in not spending it frivolously, says Mr De Souza.

They think twice before spending money in a shopping mall or an arcade and, instead, prefer to save it for a rainy day, the assistant principal says, citing feedback from pupils and parents.

“Today, children have easy access to money. So, it’s best to educate them about financial literacy at primary school age.”

The school plans to expand the use of the learning platform across more age groups in the future.

Similarly, Brighton College Abu Dhabi Prep School participated in a pilot scheme with Squirrel Education in August last year for students in years three to six.

Using the app helped to teach financial literacy through experiential learning at a young age, according to Conall MacLoingsigh, assistant head of Brighton College Abu Dhabi Prep School.

“We have been pleasantly surprised by the discussions around personal finance that the children have learned. They were able to make real-world links to what they had learned in class,” he says.

“Children discussed how they were using their pocket money differently as a result of what they had learned; rather than spending their pocket money at the end of each week, they were saving up to purchase something that would have a greater impact on their lives.

“One poignant memory was of a year three child saving up a pot of emergency funds just in case her family needed it one day.”

Preparing students for the real world is a top priority, according to Mr MacLoingsigh.

The school plans to expand and integrate Squirrel into the college in the future.

Squirrel was part of the sixth cycle of Ma’an’s social incubator programme, which was held under the theme of Entrepreneurship for Social Good.

It was organised as part of a partnership between the Authority of Social Contribution, known as Ma’an, and startAD, the business accelerator based at NYU Abu Dhabi.

Squirrel is still in constant dialogue with Ma’an and exploring more projects to support financial literacy in Abu Dhabi, says Mr Bolger.

A pupil uses the Squirrel education platform to learn about financial literacy. Photo: Squirrel

Schools that have signed up to use Squirrel Education

  • Al Muna Academy, Abu Dhabi
  • Al Yasmina Academy, Abu Dhabi
  • British International School Abu Dhabi
  • Brighton College, Abu Dhabi and Dubai
  • British School Al Khubairat, Abu Dhabi
  • Jumeirah English Speaking School, Dubai
  • Raha International School, Abu Dhabi
  • Repton School, Abu Dhabi and Dubai
  • Bangkok Prep, Thailand
  • Cairo English School, Egypt
  • ESMS School, Edinburgh, UK
  • Jamberoo Public School, Australia
  • Kipling School Cairo, Egypt
  • RGS Vietnam
Updated: May 08, 2023, 1:13 PM