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‘Welcome to the real world, kids’: Union Springs Middle-Schoolers Learn Financial Responsibility

Figuring out how to save money for college, keep a positive balance in a checking account and pay bills like an adult was the goal this spring for seventh-grade students at Union Springs Middle School.

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Posted: June 3, 2015

For two years, family and consumer science teacher Marianne Viscardi has incorporated the financial literacy software known as Banzai into her classroom curriculum to help students understand that part of becoming a responsible adult means learning how to handle money.

“Kids love it,” Viscardi said. “It’s a great program. Number one, it’s free. And, two, it doesn’t overwhelm them, but it is realistic.”

Viscardi uses Banzai and its accompanying workbooks, compliments of Empower Federal Credit Union, to introduce students to budgeting principles via trial and error. Recognizing the importance of teaching financial literacy, particularly in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, the credit union sponsors the software in classrooms for middle-schoolers to learn money management basics.

Nationally, Banzai is used by more than 14,000 teachers in all 50 states, said Rachel Yentes, a spokesperson for the Utah-based software publisher.

“Students using the program are exposed to real-life scenarios where they learn to pay bills and balance a budget,” Yentes said in an email.

Initially, students take a quiz to determine their baseline financial knowledge. When they finish the weeks-long unit, they’ll compare it to their newfound fiscal know-how.

“I bombed the pre-test,” said Steven Szozda, 13.

Thanks to his interactions with the software, Steven learned that “money is something that comes and goes.”

While the software establishes a “pretend” reality, Viscardi said, “It makes (students) think about their mom and dad and what they’re trying to do to support the family.”

The software provides students with real-life fiscal events, such as receiving weekly paychecks. Each student earns $570 a week in gross pay, but they learned about net pay when federal and state income taxes, Social Security and Medicare payments are removed from their compensation.

Using easy-on-the-eye illustrations and an online calculator, students parse their wages into various jars labeled “rent,” “car,” “utilities,” “other,” “reserves” and “college.” These help them understand how to budget their money. Next, students transfer funds from the jars into their Banzai checking and savings accounts, plus an interest-bearing credit card.

“There’s no right or wrong (decision),” Viscardi said. However, students do not “win” if they have saved less than $2,000 for college.

Students learn how to deal with the unexpected in a variety of scenarios the software generates that require them to make decisions about spending the money they’ve saved.

For example, “Your favorite band is in town. You paid for the ticket with your credit card and took the money from your ‘Other’ jar. … You hurt yourself at the concert. 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.”

Each week, students contended with a variety of monetary mojo, both positive — tax refunds, inheritances — and negative — account overdrafts, parking tickets and ATM convenience fees.

“Welcome to the real world, kids,” Viscardi said, a remark she said she uttered often during the marking period. “It’s entertaining, but it makes them think a little bit, too.”

Seventh-grader Makayla Smith, 12, said she has a better understanding of money since working with the software. Prior to this unit, keeping money for a rainy day was not her preferred spending plan.

“I’d usually give money away and spend it on stuff I didn’t need,” she said. “Now, I’ve been saving money for a special occasion, like for my mom’s birthday.”

Teachers interested in using the Banzai program can visit or call 888-8-BANZAI.

Banzai interactive courses are fun and FREE. Go ahead.