Personal Finance

A financial spin on ‘The Game of Life'

Parents are often looking for ways to teach their kids to be good money managers.

I recently wrote about a financial workshop I teach for children and young adults, and one technique piqued the interest of a number of readers, including Marilyn from Mount Joy, Pennsylvania.

“I particularly enjoyed your last column on teaching kids about finances and life using ‘The Game of Life,’” she wrote. “My husband and I were thinking, what a great way to influence our grandchildren. Can you give us any tips on how to play your version of ‘The Game of Life'?”

Here’s the thing about my version. It can be just as informative for parents as it is for children.

The goal: The object of this exercise isn’t just to teach children about budgeting. It’s also to illustrate to adults how little they are teaching them about day-to-day costs.

The tools: You only need some markers and a whiteboard or a flipchart. Either should be large enough for everyone to see. Each group should have a calculator. Since many kids have smartphones, just have them use the calculator on one of their devices.

The adults observing the activity should have a notebook so that they can record what the children say as they try to budget. Kids really do say the darnedest things.

The age level: Typically, we start at 8 and go up to 21 or anyone still in college. Mix up the groups so that you have young and older kids working together.

The instructions: You want to have at least two groups and no more than four. You want each team to be big enough to get a varied amount of input but not so large that everyone won’t get a chance to be heard. The ideal size is about 10 to a group. Your church or local community center would probably let you use some meeting space.

Have each group elect a leader. Younger children who are eager and willing can play this role just fine. Or you can have a team select two leaders – one who will solicit answers from the other members and one who will write down the budget items and keep track of the money.

It’s vital that you have the parents or whomever brought a child to the workshop stay and watch. They need to be close enough to hear the interactions. But here’s what’s key to making this a great session: Those adults cannot say anything. They can’t offer advice. They shouldn’t coach. They absolutely should not tell the children how much things cost. Their role is merely to observe.

Once all the leaders are selected, each group should pick a career and then choose a city where they will work.

Let them know how much they will earn annually using an entry-level salary in their particular field. Why? Because you want the exercise to be tough. (And they will expect to earn top incomes for their career choice.)

You want to make them struggle to budget because many of them won’t be making high salaries right after high school or college. A quick internet search will come up with some baseline income information. Or you can prepare before the session and research starting salaries for positions of the careers the children typically choose, such as a doctor, lawyer, engineer or teacher.

Take the salary and divide it by 12 to come up with a monthly income. Then subtract federal taxes. You don’t have to be exact. Check for current tax brackets. Once you’ve taken out taxes, give each group their final monthly budget amount.

Your only instruction to them now is to “Spend your money.” That’s it. Don’t give them any budget categories or hints about how to budget. The point is to see what they know and if they have any idea of what things costs.

And to show them how budgets can be busted, create what I call a “Life Happens” envelope. In this, you'll place slips of folded paper with the cost of things in life that happen, such as a roommate moving out or a major car repair. (Many won’t have set aside money for an emergency.) Each group will select one slip. Introduce the envelope after they’ve finished creating their budget and explaining their choices.

In my version of “The Game of Life,” the ultimate goal is to encourage parents to show their children how much things cost, including housing, food, transportation and utilities. I’ve always been an advocate for financial literacy in schools. But in my experience, the lessons stick better when parents are involved.