The lesson on mechanisms people can use to pay for things was primarily designed to teach the kids to be careful using credit cards. I figured this would be a tough sell, but I was wrong. One kid told me that his mom told him never to use credit cards and to pay for everything with cash. (Now that’s a little extreme, but it’s better than piling up credit card debt.) Another kid told me that her parents always pay off their credit cards every time they get a bill because “the interest is bad.” Impressed, I asked her what interest was, and she told me that “it’s the extra money people have to pay for spending too much.” (Well I don’t know many people who haven’t paid some interest towards a student loan, a car, or a house, but when it comes to credit cards, the girl had a point.) For the record, they all thought writing a check was really cool.
I thought the concept of budgeting would be pretty complex for a group of seventh graders, and I was right, but sometimes it even takes me quite a while to come up with appropriate budget proposals that are sustainable and can achieve most or all of my client’s goals. I’m proud to say that by the end of the activity, every single kid was able to make a budget that saved a little money or at least broke even, but they left me with two specific takeaways. First, every student except one put something on the charitable donation line without me even having to explain the potential tax benefits or discuss the moral and religious obligations many people feel towards giving charitably. (Wow, maybe there is hope for the world!) I should also tell you that the one kid who did not budget charitable donations wanted to, but could not, because his randomly-drawn “occupation card” did not make enough money for him to look after his family’s needs and give to others. Second, I got to see our country’s ongoing philosophical debate about taxes that we hear about every day on the news through the eyes of seventh graders. When I asked the students to define taxes, one kid told me that taxes were “money the government takes from your check to give to the army and other people.” Another student waving her hand quickly told me that taxes were “money everyone gives to the government to help those who need it.” I thought I was in a room with middle schoolers, but what I heard sounded a lot like the differing views of many opinionated adults I know. (I guess you start forming your political beliefs at a young age!)
The last lesson also featured the “occupation cards” I previously mentioned. Essentially, every kid drew a card that had a profession on it and an average monthly salary before and after taxes. While I had an improbably high number of doctor and lawyer “wannabes” at first, we had a surprisingly diverse workforce by the time I was done. Some of the kids were more interested in higher education, some were more driven to do something they were good at, and some were more focused on doing something they enjoyed. Sure, I gave them the lines about being whatever you want to be and doing something you love, but we ended up having a fairly deep conversation about the importance of balancing your interests and skills with your capability and probability of making a living. I knew I had delivered my assigned message of teaching them to balance interests, skills, and financial practicality in planning for the future when the most outspoken girl told me she was going to “do her favorite thing that paid her enough money to buy a BMW.” Mission accomplished, sort of.
Finally, I have to tell you one last thing I learned during my experience: Being a teacher is hard work! Even though I believe Junior Achievement’s program is much-needed and a great idea (and I plan on volunteering again), I was exhausted, a little low on patience, and had a splitting headache by the end of my four hours with twenty-four crazed twelve- and thirteen-year-olds . Go find one of your old teachers, tell them thank you, and by all means, give them a bottle of ibuprofen. They deserve it!