Published on 03/05/09

Real-world learning

By Sharon Dowdy
University of Georgia

In the current economy, families are tightening their financial belts and cutting back on unnecessary spending. To help understand this budget shift, 4-H’ers in Spalding County spent a few hours as adults -- financially speaking, that is.

As part of a financial simulation, more than 300 sixth-, seventh- and eight-graders were assigned jobs, salaries, families and college degrees. A few were high school dropouts. Some had spouses and children. Some had neither, said Spalding County 4-H agent Cherry Hovatter, who organized the lesson.

Debit and credit

“Each student was given a debit card, a credit card with a $5,000 credit limit and a $1,500 cash advance option,” she said.

Students were asked to balance their budgets while buying a home, a car, clothing and food and paying taxes. Those with children had to pay for daycare. They could choose to further their education, too, or take a part-time job.

The students were penalized for not making credit card payments and rewarded with salary increases for returning to school.

Real-life experiences

As an added challenge, students drew “It’s Life” cards. The cards either rewarded an unexpected tax refund or lottery winning or delivered an unexpected expense like car repairs or a medical bill.

“One student learned quickly that his salary wasn’t going to last a month after he bought a $1,100 vacation at the entertainment booth,” said Spalding County 4-H program assistant Wendy Sauley-Simmons. “He did that before buying a home or a car.”

A number of students realized they couldn’t drive a Hummer and buy food and clothing, too. “And I was surprised that no one tried to haggle with the car dealer over price,” Sauley-Simmons said.

The students learned that buying generic clothes and food saves money. “Some still demanded brand-name clothes and name-brand food,” she said.

Raising children costs money

Some students pooled their resources and shared homes. Others saved on daycare by having their stay-at-home spouse watch the children.

“They all seem to now realize how expensive raising children can be,” she said.

The simulation is an effective teaching tool, said Cynthia Anderson, director of middle-grades curriculum for the Griffin-Spalding County School System.

“It truly mimics real-life situations,” Anderson said. “We have always taught kids that if you do the right things, you’ll get the rewards. Now, a hard-working parent can still lose their job when a company closes down.”

State 4-H Leader Bo Ryles agrees.

“It’s important that we prepare youth to make wise financial decisions in the future,” he said. “But, it’s our hope that their experience in this simulation will enable them to positively influence their families now.”

Wants vs. needs

Seventh-grader Gracie McLean learned to buy what she needs and not what she wants.

“The next time my parents say they don’t have enough money for what I want, I’ll understand and know they really mean it,” she said.

McLean completed the simulation last year. This time, she worked two part-time jobs and had $2,600 left at the end of the month.

After the simulation, seventh-grader Ron Kelley decided to stay in school and live at home as long as possible.

“It gave me a taste of what it’s going to be like to be an adult and have to budget money,” he said. “I bought a used car and took on a second job. I wanted to go back to school, but the part-time job kept me busy five nights.”

Despite his efforts, he had $50 left at month’s end.

At the end of the simulation, Hovatter surveyed the students and discovered half have experienced changes at home due to the recession.

Some of the students’ comments from the survey included: • "If this is how life is going to be, I never want to grow up.” • “Work hard, and make good choices.” • “Don’t have kids. Because without kids, you can go on vacation.”

Sharon Dowdy is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.