Marotta Family Story: June Marotta’s KeyBucks

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Marotta Wealth Management (originally Marotta Asset Management) was founded in 2000 by David John Marotta. It was a rebirth of Marotta Money Management, a 1980s California-based financial planning firm that was co-founded by George and June Marotta and later sold in the late 1990s.

My mother, June Marotta, taught me about money matters as early as I can remember: what things cost, how to look for real value, and how to comparison shop as she took me along on shopping trips. She had a strong sense of humor and a clear, honest method of communicating.

I recently found this speech given by my mother during 1986 to, among other audiences, the Optimist club. She had just retired from being a teacher and vice principal at Keys School to start the California-based Marotta Money Management with my father, George Marotta.

In the speech, she tells the story of how she taught second through fifth graders about democracy, economics, entrepreneurial endeavors, and personal financial planning through the use of a school currency called “KeyBucks.”

I hope you enjoy its reprinting here.

Thank you for inviting me here to speak to you today. I pondered for quite a while before picking a topic which I hope you will enjoy as well as get something out of it.

I am a Certified Financial Planner. I help people find the best investment for their assets and give advice about their financial affairs. I teach courses in financial planning through the various organizations who offer classes for adults in this area. I sell no products and take no commissions. I charge somewhat the same way lawyers charge, by the hour. I work for the people who come to me for advice, not for an investment firm or a mutual fund company. George and I have our own company in Palo Alto.

But today I am going to talk to you about something out of my past, recent past. From 1976 until 1985 I was the fifth grade teacher and the vice principal of Keys School on Middlefield Road. I loved teaching, and I loved Keys School. I shouldn’t put that in the past tenses because I still do love Keys School. It made elementary school a wonderful place for children with a very caring faculty. I was involved with many of their selections for textbooks and was always annoyed that none of the modern textbooks for this age child had teachings about economics. Yet these children did spend money. The children did not always know where their money came from but there was no lack of wanting and knowing how to spend it.

I knew that I couldn’t use real currency for my teaching because each child’s family had different incomes, and it was important for the children to realize that it was work or a skill which got rewarded not the size of mommy’s pocket book.

I began by making an “in school script.” I called it “KeyBucks.” Named after the school and using the slang expression of Bucks rather than dollars.

I had to decide how the children would earn their KeyBucks. I thought about giving it for good grades but then only the smartest would be able to earn anything. I finally decided after reading a report on how children who took care of their school kept it in better repair that there were probably hundreds of little jobs around the school which could be done by the children. I didn’t want to get into trouble with the child labor laws so each job was made small enough so it could easily be done by a young child.

Some of the jobs we came up with (I say we because I next enlisted the help of some of the teachers and the principal) were things like picking up the litter under the lunch tables, tending a flower patch and watering it twice a week, raking up leaves on the lawn (we’d pay for each bag of leaves), putting up and taking down the tether ball each day, going in a few minutes early and helping the art teacher get ready for the art class or the science teacher. Washing the blackboards for some of the teachers (children have been doing that for nothing ever since you were in elementary school). Some of the older children could do jobs like answering the phone during the lunch period so the secretary could get a break. Older children would sometimes help the younger children with their lessons, they tutored any of the younger children who were having trouble. Sometimes the kindergarten or first grade teachers would just want help with a hard project and fourth, fifth, and sixth graders could be a big help. We also had class jobs. The third grade would take care of the lost and found for the school. Collecting lost objects and holding them until the owners reclaimed them. It is amazing to me how much clothing is accumulated in an elementary school, literally tons of it. Every couple of months the third grade would put all the lost clothing on the big fence and everyone in the school would have to march past to see if any of their possessions were hanging on the fence.

Well the jobs were easy to come up with. The favorite job in the whole school was feeding the school cat. Yes, we actually had a school cat. Her name was Llaves, which is Spanish for keys. She wandered in one day, frightened and hiding under one of the buildings. At first, the principal wanted to call the pound and have her taken away. Well, we had been having a real problem with mice in the kindergarten room (probably because 6-year-olds are so careless with food). In fact, the kindergarten teacher had been cleaning out a closet and disturbed a whole nest of mice in the back of the closet. There was a lot of screaming but not much mouse hunting. No one got hurt, not the teacher nor any of the mice. I suggested that the cat be fed and cared for and maybe she would earn her keep by keeping mice out of the building. It took Llaves about two months but after that time there wasn’t a mouse to be found in the area. I had also worried about rats. The school was near the drainage creek and one day, I had seen a rat during the summer months. But once Llaves arrived, we had a very clean school. Anyway, the favorite job in the school was feeding Llaves every morning. I must say that the children who got the job were the most religious about doing it.

The fourth, fifth, and sixth grades had some heavier jobs because once you are paying children in an in house script you then have to provide ways for them to spend their money, excuse me their bucks. So, I opened a book store. After all reading is a very acceptable thing to do in school and everyone has books which they don’t want anymore but hate to throw away. The older children found something to do with their old outgrown books and the younger children found some good used books but at a very reduced price.

Then, I gave the book store to the fourth grade and opened a store. We were always looking for funds to purchase things for the store. But many parents opened their closets and gave us used toys which older children had outgrown. Then, whenever I got a few dollars together I’d buy pretty pencils or barrettes or little toys which children would like. If I got $25.00, I could buy a whole barrel of funny erasers to put on top of your pencils. Then, because the problem of coming up with toys and items for the store was getting so difficult, I formed corporations.

One of the parents gave me a huge box of small pieces of paper which had been left over from a paper company. The paper was cut in very precise sizes because they had been cutting off pieces and these were the dregs. I bought a bottle of special glue and we formed the paper pad corporation. During recess and lunch and even after school the girls and boys would put a stack of papers together and glue the top. Then when it was dry you had a pad of paper you could tear off pages. One day, one of the girls came to school with a stamp and put a little flower at the bottom of each page of the pad she had glued. Soon we were decorating all the pads of paper with various stamps. Some of them were really pretty.

We formed a birthday corporation. If it was your friend’s birthday, you could hire the birthday corporation, and they would bring a birthday card and a balloon to the birthday child. The principal hired the corporation to deliver a card and a balloon to every child in the school on their birthday. When it was Christmas time, we sold Christmas cards and on Valentines day, the corporation did a landslide business.

We opened a school bank run by the sixth grade. This was good for their math programs and only an excellent math student could be president of the bank. We had tellers and cashiers. Also, the sixth grade ran the newspaper and both the editors and the reporters were paid in KeyBucks, as was the bank president and the tellers and cashiers.

We bought a button machine and made a button corporation. You could buy a button already prepared or you could design your own button. I insisted that all personally designed buttons had to be checked with me before they were made. One of the boys had cut out a picture from the national geographic of some native anatomy and had it made into a button and with a grin wore it around school.

The children loved their in house economic lessons and every Friday afternoon at 2:00 p.m. the bank opened, the store opened, the book store opened, reporters covered their beats, tellers covered their windows, and my store clerks and managers organized their goods for sale. We were interviewed by the Times Tribune and had a story in the paper about our little venture but most of the stories never came out.

Howie was in the second grade; he was a big boy for this age. He came to me one Friday afternoon, and he didn’t look at all happy. “Mrs. Marotta,” he said, “I need some checks from the bank and they won’t give them to me.”

“Sure, they will,” I replied.

“No, they won’t,” he said, and he was close to tears at the unfairness of the sixth graders who wouldn’t give him any checks.

“Well, let’s go and see what the problem is. You go get your KeyBucks, and I will see that you get your checks.”

Howie look at me with total frustration. “Mrs. Marotta,” he said, “That’s why I need the checks. I don’t have any KeyBucks, and I want something from the store. Everyone else is paying for things with checks and if I had some checks then I wouldn’t need any KeyBucks.”

Does that sound like some of the fiscal policy we see in this country? The bank president with my help showed Howie how to manage his money better and to put some of it away in the bank so he could get some checks. Howie will always be a little loose with his money, but perhaps he will have learned something about saving for a rainy day.

Joseph had a more serious problem. The first graders kept losing their KeyBucks. Someone was always declaring that their KeyBucks were gone. So Joseph, everyone likes to be a big shot, told all his friends that he would keep their money safe for them. His daddy was the sixth grade teacher, and Joseph felt he knew all about running a bank like the big kids did. Joseph collected all the money from his friends to keep safe, except Joseph had no records of who had given him how much and there was a good deal of disagreements about who had given him what amounts. Also, Joseph didn’t have near enough money left from his spending to cover all his debts. The first grade teacher was very angry, the sixth grade teacher was upset, the principal was very serious, and I was amused. In fact, I had trouble not laughing out loud.

Remember we are dealing with children, and childhood is the time to make mistakes and learn from them. Why do people get so upset when children make a mistake? Isn’t it better to make your mistakes when you are young and the consequences are minor than to make them when you are on Wall Street and maybe have to go to jail because of them? Joseph needed to understand his mistake surely, and he needed to pay back all the children he took money from, and I saw to it that he got a job which would allow him to do both. It took most of his free time for a couple of weeks to pay back all he owed, but he learned a good lesson about handling other people’s KeyBucks.

Children learned many things through the KeyBucks System. They had to fill out job applications and give references and tell what skills they had for the job. I loved the reference which said, “My mother says I should learn to do this job.” The job was dusting the bookshelves in my classroom. I wonder if mom had some bookshelves which needed dusting.

Young children love to pretend. The wide use of simulation games in the classroom today testifies to the importance of using interesting methods of teaching. Equating an entire school into an economic game is one way which has worked for Keys. It is democracy at work where each child is responsible for their own work ethic and reward.

Photo by author.

While the idea of creating the currency in order to help children learn important economic principles was entirely her idea, she enlisted my support for the design of the currency. In the late 1970s (when I was a teenager), we created a master currency sheet which was then mimeographed onto colored paper. We used monopoly colors because we wanted to use colors with which children were familiar. The crest of the school and some appropriate artwork finished the design. You can see a recent picture of some I’ve saved as the featured image on this article.

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David John Marotta is the Founder and President of Marotta Wealth Management. He played for the State Department chess team at age 11, graduated from Stanford, taught Computer and Information Science, and still loves math and strategy games. In addition to his financial writing, David is a co-author of The Haunting of Bob Cratchit.