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Students Get Reality Check at Reality Fairs

Credit union volunteers gave North Callaway High School students in Kingdom City a dose of real life with a financial reality fair. Using a program called Mad City Money, volunteers from United Credit Union and other organizations helped teach sound money management on May 9, 2013. United Credit Union is headquartered in Mexico, Mo. 

“The Mad City Money exercise is a great opportunity for students to have a hands-on experience with personal finances,” said Brent Sadler, president/CEO of United Credit Union. “Many young people do not fully realize how quickly an unexpected expense or ill-planned expenditure can impact their day-to-day lives. This reality fair better prepares them for the future.” 

The Missouri Credit Union Charitable Foundation (MCUCF) and the Missouri Council on Economic Education (MCEE) have partnered to bring the fun, educational financial reality fairs to Missouri high schools across the state. The North Calloway High School reality fair was the last of 10 scheduled reality fairs across the state this spring.   

“Credit union staff members help their members deal with financial realities every day, so it’s a perfect fit to have volunteers from credit unions work with students at the fairs and the Missouri Credit Union Charitable Foundation to fund this effort,” says Don Cohenour, Missouri Credit Union Association (MCUA) president/CEO. “Making sure young people have a better understanding of financial issues is important to all of us.” 

Here’s how reality fairs work. Each student receives a packet that includes a randomly-assigned job title, annual salary, debt, marriage status, number of children and other information. A checklist details things they are required to purchase and the corresponding booth. The students’ goal is to buy everything on their checklist and still have at least a $100 to put in savings.

Volunteers at each booth present the students with different options to their checklist needs. Some volunteers are encouraged to try to upsell students, similar to sales pitches that students might encounter in the future.

"I loved watching the students identify with their case studies and determine how they were going to manage financially under the budgeting guidelines," says Davine Conover, business development specialist with Poplar Bluff Federal Credit Union. Conover volunteered at the Eldon High School reality fair on April 30. "I wish it could be required of all high school students." 

A credit union booth is available at each fair. Greg Newsom, a branch manager for United Credit Union, advised students on how to reduce debt and save some money. 

“We want them to realize that life is expensive and we want to guide them to make the right choices,” said Newsom. “I think we really got through to some of the students.”

But the fair isn’t all smooth sailing. During each session, the “Fickle Finger of Fate” doles out unplanned expenses, like a broken window or car maintenance, as well as windfalls, like $50 of free groceries.

“These kids really had to figure out how to make ends meet financially - especially the ones with low incomes, high debt and kids. They were surprised at the cost of daycare,” says Stephanie Tyler, business development representative for West Community Credit Union. She volunteered at Brentwood High School on April 23. “Near the end of the event, the facilitator asked what the kids thought. One of them said, ‘life wasn’t fair.’ He made little money and could only afford to live in mobile home.”

Teachers appreciate bringing this engaging activity to their students.

“It’s important that they understand the impact their financial decisions have on their lives,” says Jason Smith, North Callaway High School teacher. “I believe the fair was extremely helpful in opening students’ eyes to the realities of making ends meet and reinforcing what the students learn in the classroom.”

This reality check for students is a great opportunity for credit unions in Missouri to improve financial literacy to the next generation of potential members. MCUCF is working with MCEE to bring 10 additional financial reality fairs to high schools in the fall. Credit union volunteers who have taken part in the financial fairs say it is time well spent.

“The main thing I will say is, ‘When and where can we do it again?’” says Judy Jett, vice president of business development and marketing for Central Missouri Community Credit Union. She and Melissa Frey, CMCCU’s marketing specialist, volunteered at Stover High School’s reality fair on March 6. 

“It was a wonderful opportunity to interact with high school students and spark conversations about money management,” says Frey. “I was pleasantly surprised by their enthusiasm and would love to do it again.”

To learn more about getting your credit union involved in promoting financial literacy through the reality fairs this fall, contact Jay Swearingen, MCUA political specialist, at: 314.542.1316 or his email.

Pictured (top): UCU President Brent Sadler helps a student at the reality fair. 

Pictured (middle): UCU Branch Manager Greg Newsom and UCU Vice President of Marketing Heather DeMint assist students at the credit union booth. 

Pictured (bottom): CMCCU Vice President of Business Development and Marketing Judy Jett talks with a student.