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Culbreth Students Encounter the "Reality of Money"

The media center at Culbreth Middle School (CMS) transformed recently into a Financial Planning boot camp, courtesy of the Carrboro branch State Employees’ Credit Union (SECU), a cadre of engaged and sometimes amused parent volunteers, six SECU employees and a rotation of school staff. Clearly, it takes a big village to teach “The Reality of Money” to several hundred eighth grade students on a single day.

Astonishingly, few students seemed bored or disinterested in the activity, which consumed nearly two hours for each group of 80 students. Many approached the learning experience like a 3D board game, and they traveled from station to station in pairs, trios and packs, comparing their evolving financial situations. There was a degree of competition, surprise, despair and excitement as each student experienced simple versions of life’s ups and downs, as relate to financial health.

The voices of students sometimes rose above the general clamor. “How many jobs can I get? More than two?” “Kids are sooo expensive” and “What is credit again?” “Saving is hard to do!” “Oh no! I’m out of money!”

Reality of Money cars The numerous stations set up in the media center included tables for clothing, entertainment, transportation, childcare and health insurance. The housing table required three volunteers to cover the many options and roadblocks students needed to consider before choosing among an expensive three bedroom home, a fixer-upper or living at “Your Parents’ Home” with parents’ rules. There was also a Help station-- and to throw in the chance for modest financial reward, a table with Dollars and Sense questions like “Where should you save your money?” (answer is NOT in a jar buried in the ground) and “What methods are used to pay for college expenses?” A correct answer earned students $50.

One of the wild card elements of the Reality of Money is the category “Stuff Happens.” A designated volunteer roams the floor, asking students to pick from a ring of laminated Stuff Happens cards: “You paid your electric bill late. Pay a late charge of $25.00.” “Happy Halloween! Buy candy. Pay $20.” “Your child breaks a neighbor’s window. Pay $40 to repair it.”

The Reality of Money came to life in 2013, developed by a team of SECU professionals from across the state. SECU offers the program free, upon request, to any middle or high school in North Carolina. Although the four CHCCS middle schools began hosting Reality of Money events at different points during the past five years, each one has now embraced the resource as an annual instructional tradition. The Carrboro SECU branch partners with CMS, McDougle Middle and Smith Middle Schools, while Phillips Middle partners with the Elliott Road branch.

CMS Reality of Money During the start of a session, each student received a profile that assigns elements like education, profession, student loan payments, salary, marital status, children-- and credit, either Good or Bad. One profile might designate the student as a pharmacist with good credit, married with a five year old. Another might be for a carpenter, with a high school diploma whose savings account balance is $60.

As they navigated the stations and discussed with volunteers the ways to build resources or minimize monthly payments, students grumbled things like, “I think I should put my kid up for adoption,” or “Why can’t I buy a home if I have bad credit? I have money!”

The Reality of Money was created with an essential goal to help students understand the impact their life choices make on their budget. and lifestyles. They learn the value of living below their means, as well as the negative consequences of the opposite. Many learn about credit scores for the first time, and as they consider car and house purchases, they learn how much it matters to have a healthy credit rating. More than anything, the program tries to instill the lesson that “Life choices matter.”

CMS Reality of Money Parent Brooke Conklin, part of the Housing team, stayed busy advising and consoling students for much of the morning. “Most students didn’t have any idea how people get bad credit, and that when you have a low score, you can’t buy a home.” Conklin admitted she had underestimated the degree to which middle school students would engage and ask thoughtful questions about finances. “I’ve been so impressed,” she said.

Candice Perry, from SECU, sat at the Help table for much of the morning. She laughed when she said the most common question so far had been “How many jobs can I take? I want lots and lots of jobs.” She would tell each student to consider the implications. “Do you have a family, a wife? Remember you need to consider your family needs.”

At the end of each session, eighth grade counselor Shannon Allee gathered the students on the floor to debrief. “What surprised you the most from this experience,” she asked?

“I didn’t know pharmacists make so much money!” “Entertainment and groceries cost so much!” “I learned if you want money, don’t have kids.” “Things just cost a lot more than I ever thought.”

One student wisely summed up what he had learned. “Don’t get what you want, but only what you need.”