Mad City Money Challenges High School Students

The interactive budgeting simulation offers sophomores and juniors a workshop in money management.

With everything that goes into preparing high school students for graduation, financial literacy is easy to understate, according to Ms. Terri Redden, who is one of four personal finance teachers at Ruskin High School in Kansas City, Missouri. 

“It’s becoming more and more important to give these kids a solid foundation of money management, especially when many of them aren’t exposed to it at home,” she says.

Redden and her colleagues have spent a week preparing their sophomores and juniors for Mad City Money (MCM), an interactive budgeting simulation for area schools done through a PREP-KC and United Way of Greater Kansas City partnership.

During MCM, high school students take on a “new life” that comes with a career, an income, children and debt. They are challenged to purchase a house, transportation, clothes, home goods, and more — at least one expense from each station. Often, the volunteers operating each station upsell the students, convincing them they can afford a luxury vehicle, expensive meals or they need surround sound speakers to go with that big-screen television. 

The takeaway can vary, depending on the participants’ age and life experience, says Ms. Redden. For seniors, it tends to hit closer to home because many of them have jobs and therefore have to manage money to some extent. For the younger grades, however, Ms. Redden says the most relevant part is their GPA determining their income. 

“I don’t tell them until after they’ve gone through the workshop and they see how far or not their money can go. So that will be a surprise to my kids when we debrief, and they’ll usually be like, “Oh dang, I’ve got to get my GPA up before I graduated!’”

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As a volunteer at the credit union station, I won’t get to see the reaction junior Ira Smedley will have when she finds out about her GPA-determined income, but as I work with her to revise her monthly budget three times over, I can imagine how this hypothetical situation will sink in that much more.

She’s far over her $2,800 budget. She has a child to support, but most significantly, Ira’s monthly transportation expense is $700 and she’s put $1,330 toward housing. 

“I already got rid of my trip to London,” Ira tells me, as I point out where she can eliminate costs. “OK, no problem! I don’t need to go camping either. Why do I even need a camera, anyway?” 

Ira gets rid of all entertainment expenses and sticks with reading and swimming, both of which are free. Her new car turns into a $50 monthly bus pass. The house, though? She won’t budge, and we’re still over.

“I’ve got to have a nice house! It has a finished basement for my baby.” 

Her finance teacher overhears, and seems equal parts horrified and humored. “Ira, you know that’s like twice the average rent, right? You could get a nice place for less.”

Ira laughs and shakes her head. “Man, I’m over this! I’m gonna live with my momma forever.”