ACMG Federal Credit Union in Solvay, N.Y., recently gave 43 seniors at Solvay High School a taste of the real world through Mad City Money, a two-hour financial education simulation created by CUNA. More than 250 credit unions have hosted the event since its genesis in 2007.
At Solvay, each student received an identity and scenario, such as a newspaper editor with $400 in credit card debt, a $2,300 monthly salary and a two-year-old child. Students then visited merchants role-played by volunteers from the community and wrote checks to purchase housing, transportation, food and other needs. Their challenge was to survive for one month in their new roles by balancing both their budgets and their checkbooks, ending the simulation with no more than $100 in their checking accounts.
For the past few years, ACMG FCU has been providing financial education classes to senior economics classes at Solvay with the help of Thom Dellwo, financial education coordinator at Cooperative Federal Credit Union in Syracuse, N.Y. After hearing a description of Mad City Money from Wendy Wheelock, director of marketing at ACMG, economics teacher Karen Harmon met with Solvay's principal and arranged for all four senior economics classes to take part in the program by declaring it an in-school field trip.
"I feel that it is extremely important for teens in high school to get a basic understanding of budgeting their money and more importantly saving for their future," said Harmon, who played the role of city policeman during the simulation.
Dellwo, who facilitated Mad City Money at Solvay, explained that the event is a low-cost, manageable alternative to an in-school branch, which can be a lot for a school to take on.
"Mad City Money does a good job of making it simple enough [for the students] that you get the instructions and go, but it's realistic enough that if you mess around and don't stop to see where you're at, you get in trouble, just like in real life," he said.
And just like in real life, the merchants in Mad City try to pressure participants into making purchases they don't really need. For example, said Wheelock of ACMG FCU, one of the local businessmen running the auto store table "took his role to the next level" and tried to up sell the students on extended repair warranties when they purchased a new car. Wheelock said he randomly quoted them an additional amount and had them add it to their monthly car payment when they wrote out their checks.
"It was about 45 minutes into the event before one girl looked him in the eye and told him she didn't need one because it said right in the fine print that a warranty was included," she said. "We made sure to recognize her at the debrief, but continued to let him try and trick the kids since that is a great example of the typical pressure they would experience out on their own."
Wheelock said the most common mistake students made was forgetting to accurately record their spending. "Those who failed to consistently record the checks they had written in their registers had the most problems and needed help pulling that information from their budget workbooks and then getting back on track," she explained. The place to go for that help was the credit union's office in Mad City, where loan officer Janet Grant and member services specialist Sarah Terrell answered questions and offered guidance.
The credit union fielded the most questions at the end of the simulation, when students had to finish with no more than $100 in their checking accounts and wanted advice on whether to pay down debt, put extra money in their retirement account or simply put it into savings. "We tried not to make the decision for them and chose to describe the benefits of each choice," Wheelock said. "It was a lot to consider, but almost all made the decision on their own and divided their money among the three."
Harmon, the economics teacher, said Mad City Money supplements what students learn in her class.
"I feel too many students leave high school without enough financial education to be able to survive on their own," she said. "After speaking with my students, I truly feel that they learned some valuable information that they will be able to use when they leave high school."
The students themselves agree. They filled out evaluation sheets after participating in the simulation, and their comments are almost all positive. Their favorite parts of the event, they said, include "being given real life situations for budgeting" and "just being able to see how everything really works." They also said the most important things they learned were to "make sure you don't live above your means" and "don't buy what you can't pay for."
The survey of the 43 students, who are all eligible to join ACMG FCU, also found that 93% thought Mad City Money was a fun way to practice making decisions about money and budgeting, 88% felt more confident in their ability to manage money successfully, 90% would recommend the activity to a friend and 95% consider the credit union a good place to go for financial help.
Asked if she thought students would join the credit union as a result of their Mad City Money experience, Wheelock said, "Obviously, we would love to see that happen, but more importantly I believe they learned what to look for in a financial institution. You want someone who offers the products and services you need today and helps you grow to reach your future financial goals. It's our purpose as a credit union and I believe that most of the students understand the importance of that now."