Where can high school students role-play their financial lives at age 25 – from their net incomes to what kind of housing, cars and charitable donations they’ll be able to afford? It all happens at the annual Credit for Life Fair at Brockton High School in Brockton, Massachusetts, which is driven in large part by Donna Burrill, a 30-year veteran of education and the Director of Business, Technology, Vocational and Career Education for the Brockton Public Schools.
During the annual fair, more than 200 students step into the shoes of 25-year-olds and make important decisions about their finances at 15 unique booths. After deciding on their professions, they choose how much of their monthly incomes to devote to housing, transportation, insurance, clothing, luxury items, a phone, food, credit cards, charitable contributions and more. "I watch them analyze their spending, make decisions, make changes, make mistakes, have fun and learn in a safe environment. Many of them comment that they had 'no idea' that it was this expensive to live!" Donna explains.
Donna began working on the fair in 2003, after its original implementation by HarborOne in 2001. Her desire to help students make smart financial choices inspired her to begin directing the program in partnership with Leo MacNeil, Senior Vice President of Community Relations at HarborOne Credit Union. Leo explains, "If you don’t have a plan for your money, everyone else does." The importance of financial literacy is something they’ve worked tirelessly to instill in students at Brockton together ever since. Now they’re collaborating to make the program available at other schools. Recently, Leo even hosted a "Best Practices" session for interested educators from other schools.
The fair that once served just Brockton High has now reached an estimated 50 schools and tens of thousands of students nationwide. Educators from all over New England are expressing interest in implementing Credit for Life in their schools, and Massachusetts State Treasurer Timothy Cahill recommended that the event become a requirement for all public high schools in the state.
Donna says of the program, "Our goal is to give the kids a broad understanding of a range of concepts." Living with roommates means you can split the cost of your deposit at move-in. A corporate job requires a professional wardrobe and related dry-cleaning costs, and an expensive car means a higher insurance premium. These and other budgeting and credit lessons tie to concepts students are learning in Brockton’s accounting, business and finance classes.
To teach students how real life can also bring unexpected expenses, Credit for Life includes a "chance booth" where students draw cards with unexpected occurrences that will affect their finances, like a flood in their apartment (some will have opted against renter’s insurance) or the arrival of a tax return. This teaches the importance of preparing for unplanned expenses, as well as the protection that insurance can deliver. The lesson extends to credit when students must choose between a no-frills credit card and a card that comes with a t-shirt and a higher APR.
There is no doubt that Credit for Life has had an incredible impact on the students it’s reached thus far. As the administrator who oversees Brockton High School’s financial and career classes, Donna knows that engaging students in the content and showing them how it applies to their lives is key to instilling in them strong financial skills. She says that for students, the fair "brings the curriculum to life." Leo agrees. "It appeals to kids because they want to interact. They want to compete."
Many students comment about the new appreciation the simulation gives them for their parents. Others call the program "really fun" and have to laugh about some of the mistakes they made. It’s with a tone of seriousness they discuss the cars they’ve chosen, how much they can contribute to savings and what they’re willing to pay for healthful food. Clearly, it’s a three-hour simulation that changes the way students see their financial futures. At the rate Donna Burrill, Leo MacNeil and their event contributors and counterparts are going, the program will have an impact on an increasing number of schools and communities for years to come.