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WS Seniors Get Schooled in Finance

The first time West Salem High School senior Marissa Garrels played the Banzai financial literacy game, she failed, running out of money before she could pay for college.

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“It’s kind of like a wake-up call when you fail. I thought I was financially responsible, but then I couldn’t even pass a game,” Garrels said.

Garrels first played the game with her Living on Your Own class taught by Melissa Haas. She was glad to get another chance to play during a financial literacy class for seniors Jan. 28.

“I wanted to play it again just to see if I could do any better,” Garrels said.

The high school took advantage of an early release day to teach seniors some basic budgeting skills. They invited Tony Beyer, the financial literacy coordinator at Altra Federal Credit Union, and had each student play the Banzai game to test their finance skills.

“It lets them be a step ahead when they get out into the real world,” Haas said.

Haas chose the Banzai program to help them learn because it was applicable to students, with tasks like buying gas, buying a car or buying concert tickets. “It has those real experiences that I think a teenager could really relate to,” Haas said.

Haas took her students through a booklet of life scenarios that gives examples of bills or unexpected expenses that can come up.

“It shows students, ‘This is real life. This is what a bill looks like,’” Haas said.

The students then played a game online that follows a newly independent teenager through a month of bills and expenses. The goal of the game is for the student to pay each bill and also have enough to cover her first semester of college tuition at the end of the month, which is $2,000.

“It’s a good simulation of what a month might look like,” Haas said.

Students can choose what car to buy, which apartment to rent and what food to buy. Garrels chose middle-of-the-road expenses the first time, avoiding the luxuries, but not buying the cheapest items either.

It turned out to not be enough.

“You have to give things up that you wouldn’t think you’d have to,” Garrels said.

The second time, Garrels was able to plan ahead more and pay more attention to how her expenses interconnect.

“This is tying it all together, so you can see how they all relate to one another,” Garrels said.

The Banzai program was provided by the Altra Foundation, a La Crosse-based charity organization that is part of Altra Federal Credit Union. The foundation has provided Banzai to schools across the country, from Tyler, Texas, to Trenton, New Jersey, as well as West Salem. It’s one of the many things the credit union does to promote financial literacy, according to Beyer.

It’s incredibly important for students to understand they need to live within their means, Beyer said. “The earlier they can start saving the better.”

The more people know about finance, the better they are able to manage their budget. “They are able to pay their bills, they are able to have money in savings. They are able to be more self-sufficient,” Beyer said.

“If people can make those smart decisions, it really benefits everybody in the community. It just makes sense,” Beyer added.

Garrels said she really saw the benefit of learning about personal finances.

“Money doesn’t keep coming forever. It runs out, and you can’t just put things on a credit card,” Garrels said.

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

Banzai interactive courses are fun and FREE. Go ahead.