Empowering Young People’s Financial Futures Through Adulting 101 Game

Asian woman and girl use credit card and smartphone
By Skyler Harwood

5 minutes

Corning Credit Union lives out the 2022 International CU Day theme by helping students learn about successful financial choices.

I discovered my fondness for working with children in middle school when I had the opportunity to work with teachers in younger classes and help students work through different activities. I honed my love for teaching in college while studying to become an early childhood education teacher, and my passion for personal finance came alive when I joined the credit union movement in 2015 after accepting a job at Corning Credit Union. It only seemed natural that I’d find myself in the financial education space in due time, and I’ve been a passionate force in helping students take ownership of their financial decisions and opportunities ever since.

Whenever I start working with a new group of students, I always tell them the same thing: “It’s not my job to tell you what to do.” And that’s true; I can’t make money decisions for them. It’s their money and they are working toward their own goals. However, I tell them that it is my job to help them achieve whatever goals they have by answering their questions and providing them with resources to help them make their own choices. One of the most effective ways I have found to do this is by helping students practice making these choices before they’re doing it for real with their own hard-earned money.

How can we present students with opportunities to practice making financial decisions? My personal favorite option is to bring a reality fair to the classroom. Reality fairs are simply finance-based life simulations. Students are given details about a life in the future where they have income, debt, families and other obligations. They are then tasked with making decisions about what they can afford within their budget. Where will they live? What will they drive? What food will they eat? In addition to making these kinds of decisions, students practice keeping a register, writing checks and many other important life skills. As adults, we are all aware of exactly how difficult sticking to a budget can be, but what happens when you ask a teenager to try their hand at it? You’ll very quickly realize that it’s a skill that needs to be practiced. High school students typically excel in reality fairs. The topic of managing money is top of mind for this age group who are looking to start becoming more independent as
they get ready to graduate. But what about younger students?

New Financial Education Program for Middle Schoolers

I feel strongly that financial education is important at every age, and I love giving students the agency to explore and make their own financial decisions. Through my experience working with younger teens, I noticed that the reality fairs did not translate as well to middle school-aged students. So, we decided to create a new program that:

  • Is age appropriate for middle school students (6th-8th grade)
  • Teaches budgeting through
    • Making realistic choices
    • Practicing using a register
    • Learning how to write checks
    • Managing unexpected expenses and windfalls
  • Encourages collaboration with others on decision-making
  • Accommodates large or small groups of students participating at once
  • Is active, engaging and avoids lecture-style teaching

Tasked with these goals in mind, we created Adulting 101, a life-sized budgeting board game where each tile represents either an expense or a windfall that students must account for in their budgets. Some of these expenses are mandatory, like housing, transportation, loan payments and food. Some expenses are left up to chance, like a broken appliance, adopting a pet or a visit to the doctor. Students themselves are the game pieces, walking around the board as they roll oversized dice. A trip around the board represents a month. As students near the end of the game, we ask them to take a look at their budgets and see how much money they have left. Some have money left, while others have had more expenses to cover. No matter how their budget ends up, we have a great opportunity to discuss topics like emergency funds, realistic vs. unrealistic choices and what they might do differently if they played this game again.

Financial Education Going Forward

For many students, these conversations don’t stop when I leave the classroom. They are connecting the topics we covered in the classroom to their lives outside of school. They go home and ask the adults in their lives about family finances. How do their parents manage money? How do they keep track of expenses? Are they using a register too? Knowing that the conversation continues helps to reaffirm the positive impact we’re having. The feedback we’ve received has made it clear that we are filling an educational need within this age group. The activity is so engaging, and outside the norm in terms of approach, that it is sparking a curiosity in students to learn more about managing money in the real world. The biggest takeaway for us has been that students as young as sixth grade have valid concerns about personal finance and are easily motivated to learn more about it in an age-appropriate way.

Financial health has become an important factor for achieving success and security in the world as an adult. In addition to common financial transactions like purchasing a car or buying a house, having good credit and making informed financial decisions can impact your ability to get a job, rent an apartment, obtain a cell phone or qualify for insurance. It is important now more than ever that we are connecting with students of all ages and creating an approachable space for experience-based learning that will open conversations about personal finance.

Since we created Adulting 101 in 2017, hundreds of middle school students have completed the program and are better armed with the foundational skills they need to build their own financial independence. I am proud of this program. I am proud of all the students who have participated in Adulting 101 and the skills they’ve developed as a result. Above all, I am proud to work at Corning CU, where we continue to invest in providing financial education opportunities to students of all ages.

Skyler Harwood is youth and community education specialist for $2.3 billion Corning Credit Union, Corning, New York.

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