Making Sense of Dollars
One-Day Program Teaches Middle Schoolers How to Handle Money

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

"I'm making good choices to not spend so much money on one thing."

"I want to see what kind of car I can afford."

"I have a lot of bills to pay, and I only make a little bit of money."

The quotations at the top of this article sound like adults talking, don't they? Actually, they are the voices of three eighth-graders at Rocky Run Middle School in Chantilly who took a hands-on class last fall to learn about the grown-up world of earning money -- and spending it wisely.

It was an eye-opening exercise. The kids were surprised how much effort it took to figure out what you can afford based on what you earn.

"I did not know my parents had this much work to do," said Reza Qaradaghi, 14. "I feel so bad because I ask them to spend so much money on me, and I didn't know it was so hard."

As she spoke, she was huddled over a worksheet based on the role she had been assigned for the day: pretend she was 35, single and making $30,864 a year. The worksheet listed her spending choices, broken down into things she had to pay for (housing, health care, groceries) and those she might want to spend money on (a car, cable TV, going to the movies).

Reza and her classmates used computers to study the cost of items before choosing whether to buy things (sports car or minivan? clothing or cable TV?) or save their money.

Some students had much smaller incomes than Reza and more complicated lives, such as a spouse and children to support. Because they spent all day playing their roles, the kids thought a lot about what their real future might be like.

Alex Gordon, 13, was cast in the role of a single parent supporting two kids, 7 and 12, on $20,472 a year. Alex summed up his financial struggle: "I've got to try to work around all that and still try to find things to do with my kids and pay off my debts as fast as possible." Then he added: "I don't want to be an adult."

Other kids joked that they don't want to be parents because kids are too expensive!

"You have to be really smart about what you're choosing," said Eileen Sechler, 14. "I never expected it would be like this."

That's the typical reaction of kids who take part in the one-day Finance Park program, which is put together by Junior Achievement, a group that helps kids learn about money issues. The class takes place in two specially outfitted trailers, so the program can easily move from one location to another.

The program's managers say it works because it's like real life. "If you taught it in the classroom, it wouldn't have the same impact," said Ed Grenier, president of Junior Achievement in this area.

Zac Small, 13, certainly learned some lessons firsthand. Assigned the role of a single 25-year-old making $41,316, Zac decided to spend $510 a month on movies, sporting events and other entertainment. But that left him without money for things he really needed. So he went back and cut his entertainment spending, getting a good cable TV system instead.

"I'm not married," he explained, "so I'm going to be home a lot."

-- Margaret Webb Pressler

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company