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Mercy High School Students Get Real-World Experience Managing Finances Through Free Software

Sloane Proto, a senior at Mercy High School, was so surprised to learn recently how buying one cup of coffee a day depletes her discretionary income that she was inspired to put aside as much as $100 a week for the future.

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She is one of 70 students in Mercy High School Business/Technology Teacher Lynn Curello’s business and personal finance classes learning about real-life scenarios through Banzai, a software program made possible at no charge by a grant from the American Eagle Financial Credit Union.

“I was trying to save, but this inspired me more to start saving,” said Proto, who busses tables at Powder Ridge’s Fire at the Ridge restaurant in Middlefield. “I stopped buying coffee in the morning, stopped eating out and shopping as often.”

The online program, which educates students about how to manage their money, was provided free to 20 area schools. The platform is designed to introduce students to skills such as managing debt, reconciling bank statements, balancing budgets and making trade-offs. They work on handling financial issues, such as what to do with a tax refund and transferring money between accounts.

For three years, Curello has been counseling her students through Banzai on the importance of credit report scores, saving for retirement, balancing a checkbook, learning about credit card fraud, phishing and dumpster diving identity fraud.

At Mercy, the class is an elective, Curello said. But it’s become so popular that she created an advanced course so the students could learn more.

Banzai offers lessons that teach the students, through doing, some of the things that many adults take for granted, like balancing a checkbook, and even how to write and endorse a check.

“It’s a simulation that you can do and you go online and complete the transactions,” Curello said. “There are documents, like going to the bank and making a deposit, going to the ATM and taking out money, or a receipt for something. And you keep a budget with it.

“When they first started this, they had pretend jars online and they’d put the money in, like a long time ago when we had money, we’d put it in envelopes,” Curello said.

“You hurt yourself at the concert,” one scenario reads. “Because you’re uninsured, you had to put the full amount on your credit card. Since this was an emergency, you can take it from your reserves jar.”

Todd E. Corey, branch manager at American Eagle Financial Credit Union in Cromwell, visited the students in early December and taught a class.

“I was surprised they did have a good background. It didn’t seem like I was talking over their heads. They did learn a lot, but already had a good base,” said Corey, who will next visit Portland High School students and recently did a similar session at Middlesex Community College in Middletown.

Many of the girls had questions, he said, such as the maximum amount they could borrow on their own, did they need a cosigner for certain loans, and how to finance a car.

“If your salary is $40,000, that sounds like a lot, but after state and federal taxes, paying your rent, they were shocked how, at the end of the month, they could have only $200 to their name, after medical and car insurance, Social Security,” Corey said. “It was really enlightening. Our motto is ‘pay yourself first.’”

Corey encourages people of all ages to put money into their 401(k) or IRA before they even determine what their discretionary income is for the pay period.

Curello encouraged her son to use a credit card in college. She would set a limit and he’d pay it off at the end of the month from his paycheck.

That way, she said, he began early establishing a good credit history, so, in the future, when he wants to borrow money to buy a house or a car, he’d get a lower interest rate and be more likely to be approved by a lending institution, Curello said.

One of the class assignments was setting a long-term goal like getting a PhD.

Junior Rachael Cipolla’s long-term goal was to further her education and one of the steps to get there was doing well on her SATs.

“A lot of the girls picked education goals, whether it be increasing their SAT scores or getting straight As or improving in one class,” she said. “It really prepares you for how you’re going to have to organize money or how you’re going to have to achieve your goals like savings or depositing money, or get into a situation where you don’t have enough money.”

Marie Emerson, a junior, said several students even pretend invested in the stock market.

“We looked at trends and what was going on,” she said.

Cipolla said they knew what to look for just from talkin in class.

“There was a lot of guessing,” said senior Flynn Socha-Mello. “We used a bar chart and had to research a little bit. We tried to make an educated guess. We gained a lot of money one time. Half of it is picking the stock and the other half is once you gain a lot of money, you sell your stock. You can celebrate now and keep it for a while. We bought stock in IBM and the next day, it had gone up a few thousand dollars overnight.”

Banzai also shows the benefits of beginning to save for retirement as early as possible.

“If you start saving now and putting money in it, and, as you get to each stage of life, you have more dependents or responsibilities. You might be saving less, but, because you started saving earlier and don’t touch that, it’s going to continue to grow,” Curello said. “They learn there are needs, but they have to make time for their wants, too. It’s an excellent simulation for students to make financial decisions. It allows them to try real-life scenarios before they go out into the real world themselves.”

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Banzai interactive courses are fun and FREE. Go ahead.