Bite of Reality volunteers Bite of Reality volunteers from Portland-area credit unions USAgencies CU, Providence FCU, Point West CU, Consolidated Community CU, OnPoint Community CU and Cutting Edge CU (and me, second from left), pose for a group photo.

Most of us can agree that school doesn’t necessarily prepare us for the real world. Have you seen that meme with a picture of a recorder musical instrument, that says something to the effect of, “School never taught us how to do our taxes, but at least it taught us this … my life is in shambles but at least I know how to play ‘Hot Cross Buns’ on the recorder!” Yeah, exactly.

The lack of financial literacy education in schools is no joke, though: According to the National Financial Educators Council, “Many schools do little or nothing to prepare students to deal with their finances, setting them up for academic success and financial failure.” Credit unions, as you may know, are doing their part to help change this by hosting “financial reality fairs” at high schools across the country, which simulate financial decision-making in adulthood for students, assigning them an occupation, debt level and family situation, and allowing them to make and learn from their spending choices.

Recently, I had the opportunity to volunteer at a “Bite of Reality” workshop – a program available through the National Credit Union Foundation and Richard Myles Johnson Foundation that credit unions can host in their communities (in this case, the host was the $90 million USAgencies Credit Union in Portland, Ore.) – with other local CU employees at a Portland high school. Students visited booths to make spending decisions related to housing, transportation, kid care, entertainment, personal care, food, clothing and household needs, and managed their spending through the new Bite of Reality app on their own or school-provided mobile devices. One booth was labeled as the “Credit Union,” which students visited to receive financial advice and pay off debt (the simple presence of this booth showed kids that a credit union can be their banking destination, not a bank, so, yay!). My booth, called “Shopping,” tempted students into buying items like smartphones, TVs, computers, sound systems, digital cameras, sports equipment, motorcycles and boats.

Here are four observations I made about Gen Zers while pretending to sell them things that likely wouldn’t fit into their budgets as working adults.

1. They’re tempted by luxury buys that could raise their social status. The most popular item at my booth, hands down, was the boat. Many students’ eyes lit up with excitement at the thought of inviting friends to join them for summer weekends at the lake, and had no problem using $450 of their monthly budget on a boat payment. Unsurprisingly, many of those kids came back to the booth later to “return” the boat. Others, however, appeared to be more frugal, approaching our booth for the first time and asking, “What’s the cheapest thing you have?” Of course, it could be that some of these kids just wanted to get the assignment over with, and may not have been making decisions that would reflect their real-life behavior. Nonetheless, just like generations before them, Gen Zers can become tempted to make a large impulse buy that promises a more luxurious lifestyle – and regret it later.

2. They care about their profession and what it says about them. When they first signed into the Bite of Reality app, students were automatically assigned an occupation and income level. At this point in the exercise, groans and complaints could be heard throughout the auditorium from those who were not happy with their assigned job title. To their credit, I felt some of the professions were a little outdated, and I would have liked to see more that are likely to be in demand when Gen Z enters the working world, such as jobs in fintech or AI technology. One assigned occupation was “librarian,” and another was “newspaper editor” (trust me, while I do in fact make a living as an editor for a print publication, there are very few of us left). All that aside, it was clear that Gen Zers will tie their job title to their identity, and will seek an identity they can be proud of. Results from a recent RainmakerThinking, Inc. survey of 4,093 Gen Zers, “The Voice of Generation Z: What Post-Millennials Are Saying About Work,” backed this up. When asked about the importance of “meaningful roles and responsibilities” at work, 48% said they “would love to have it,” 28% said they “would like to have it” and 18% said they “won’t take the job without it.”

Natasha Chilingerian and Matt Gibson Matt Gibson of USAgencies CU and me at the “Shopping” booth at Bite of Reality.

3. Many are mobile-only when it comes to viewing videos. Out of all the items for sale on the “Shopping” sheet, I assumed the TV would be a top pick. But most students opted for a smartphone only, or a smartphone and a laptop, and said they didn’t need a TV because they would stream shows and movies on one of the other devices. This reiterated one of the biggest differences between Gen Z and the generations before them – the manner in which they consume media is portable and on-demand. It’s something credit unions should keep in mind as they create video marketing campaigns targeting this age group.

4. There’s a sense of discomfort around money management. The looks on some of these students’ faces as they approached the various booths evoked fear, confusion and uneasiness. Some of their comments included, “I don’t know what to do!” and “I just hate all of this!” Of course, the idea that money is an uncomfortable, scary topic is not a new one. Debt and disagreements over spending styles have been tearing apart marriages for decades. Kids have watched their parents throw their money around carelessly and gone on to mimic their behavior in their own adult lives. Many families refuse to be transparent about their financial pictures, keeping debts, accounts and income streams secret from other family members, and often declaring conversations about money off-limits.

The only way to relieve discomfort around a topic is to start talking about it more – and more openly. Parents, teachers and mentors of Gen Zers (as well as the credit unions serving Gen Zers and/or their family members) need to initiate conversations about money early and often to help set these kids up for a successful future.

My first thought upon the conclusion of my Bite of Reality experience was, “Credit unions, let’s keep this up!” A new study from Junior Achievement and Citizens Bank found over 30% of teens don’t believe they’ll be financially independent from their parents by age 30. I don’t think any 30-year-old or parents of a 30-year-old would honestly say they’d be happy with that arrangement. So, keep going with your efforts to bring financial education into more schools – because this generation needs your help.

Natasha Chilingerian

Natasha Chilingerian is managing editor for CU Times. She can be reached at nchilingerian@cutimes.com.