That's the reality of CUNA's two-hour financial education simulation game that credit union's are bringing into local high schools. Mad City Money puts students in a real-life adult scenario that they have to work to sort out on their own. Students are given an occupation with a set income. Some are given a family with a spouse and children, some are divorced and some are single parents. Some have credit card debt.
For those two hours, the students have to follow that scenario by setting a budget and visiting different merchant booths to purchase housing, transportation, food, household necessities, clothing, day care and other essential items. At each booth, students are faced with choices that range from basic to luxury, and the students have to decide what they can and can't afford.
"It's like getting a financial V8. They get a slap on the head and all of a sudden go 'Duh, I can't spend more than I make,'" said Lin Standke, manager of product training at CUNA on how students react to the program.
LaFollette High School in Madison, Wis., is in its third year of using the Mad City Money program. Three years ago, LaFollette partnered with Heartland Credit Union in Madison to put together a financial literacy campaign for the school. Heartland purchased the Mad City Money program through CUNA and began working with business education teacher Donna Kennedy to implement the program at the school.
Originally, Mad City Money was set up for 30 students to go through the simulation at a time. Kennedy wanted to send hundreds of students through the program at a time and worked with CUNA to change the program to fit the school's need.
The first year Lafollette offered Mad City Money, 250 students went through it. The second year it had 600 students, and this year it also had two sessions of the program with 300 students going through it at a time.
Heartland works with the school to gather volunteers to man the booths, and Heartland also has volunteers to work at the credit union booth. Mad City Money features a credit union where students can go if they are having trouble putting together a budget and if they need any financial questions answered.
"The response we get is overwhelming. The students love it, and they learn from it. They are engaged and smiling as they go through the process," Kennedy said.
Ultimately, Kennedy said her goal is to have the entire school or all the junior and senior students go through the program.
After the students go through the program, they go back to the classroom and reflect on what they learned. Kennedy said that she has her students complete a writing assignment to talk about what they liked and didn't like about the program and what they learned from it.
"Reading those is amazing to see what they get from it. Most of them say that they didn't realize how expensive it is to live."
Kennedy also said that one of the biggest responses she gets from students is that they didn't realize how expensive children are.
Even students that go through the event two years in a row enjoy it the second time around, Kennedy said. Ten percent of her students go through the program twice, and she makes sure that each time they get a different scenario to work through.
Administrators at the school are excited to see the students participating, she added. One administrator came up to her in excitement over seeing a particular student smiling and engaged in a scenario.
"He was so excited to see that student that normally isn't engaged smiling and participating that he took of picture of it."
Each year, Illinois has a statewide financial literacy week called Money Smart Week. During that week, Heartland CU implements Mad City Money at four of its local public high schools.
"This is definitely a partnership where you need support from the schools. You need the teachers involved and willing to bring their classes to the event," said Josie Matuszak, marketing manager at Heartland.
The credit union supplies 30 volunteers for the event, and the schools put together the rest of the volunteers.
"It's wonderful to see the volunteers say 'I wish we had this when we were in high school.' It's great to see them understand the relevancy of the program," Matuszak said.
In all the schools that use Mad City Money, Matuszak said that both the teachers and the students have found value in it.
The goal behind Mad City Money is for the students to be allowed to make mistakes-see the consequence of their decisions-and figure out how to right the mistakes.
Matuszak said that she has seen students approach the program from all sides. One student she said kept making purchasing and just writing down his negative numbers. Other students, she said, go figure out their budgets and then go back and make purchases. Others pay off as much credit card debt as they can and then go make purchases.
During Money Smart Week, 1,300 students go through the Mad City Money program.
CUNA was scheduled to hold a two-hour simulation of Mad City Money last Monday for attendees of the California and Nevada Credit Union Leagues Annual Meeting & Convention. Credit union professionals will have the chance to be put in the place of a student and mange their way through the simulation.
Information on the Mad City Money kit can be found at buy.cuna.org, and a video of students going through Mad City Money at LaFollette High School can be viewed at http://www.ecb.org/finance/A912Kennedy.html.