Voice of America: US Students Take School Field Trip to Real-World Financial Planning

LANDOVER, MARYLAND— Call it a "show me the money" field trip.

A group of middle schoolers is getting a lesson in real life at Junior Achievement Finance Park near Washington, D.C.

"When the students come here, we make it fun and interactive," said Ed Grenier, JA of Greater Washington's president and CEO.

But the lesson starts in the classroom, he says, with about 14 hours of instruction on financial institutions, debt, credit, budgets, and various types of taxes.

Costly adult responsibilities

The Junior Achievement program targets middle schoolers, Grenier says, because that is the age when kids' spending habits start to form.

For this trip, students learn about the adults they'll pretend to be for the day.

"We give them a life situation where they are 42 [years old], married and have three kids, make this much money and they have to go through the day and create a monthly budget," Grenier explained. "There are a lot of 'Aha moments' here, I can tell you that. They learn that if I have two kids, I need a bigger car than a two-door convertible. They need a bigger house.”

Paola Ventura, 14, is given a “life situation” where she is a 34-year-old single mother of two kids. Her task is to plan a budget that covers the family’s needs — and adjusts for surprises along the way.

"The amount of money we have to spend on certain things like child care and insurance,” Ventura said. “I had an idea it would be hard, but I never grasped onto what my mom was doing when she spends money. I never noticed too much."

JA's programs target students not only in the U.S., but worldwide.

"We have four-and-a-half million students in America," Grenier said. "We have almost 10 million around the world learning financial literacy."

Money, money, money

The program is run through a partnership with Capital One, a financial institution.

"We truly believe that financial literacy is in the same areas as reading, writing, and arithmetic as being one of those core educational components that students need in order to be successful in the future," said Capital One spokesperson Ryan Smartt regarding the collaboration.

Capital One employees serve as instructors.

"In our 10-year partnership with Junior Achievement, we've had 10,000 associates who've actually come out and volunteered at the locations across the country,” Smartt said. “It allows them to get out and volunteer, but also to serve as a mentor, as a leader for middle school kids, and provide them with those foundational skills that they'll need for their future."

For Mohammad Abbas, 14, the program was an eye-opener.

Paying bills and managing a checkbook, he says, is harder than it seems. And he's happy he learned that before starting a summer job in a few months.

"It taught me not to waste my money," he said. "Just because something is new, doesn't necessarily mean it's better."

What is always better? Spending less than you earn. That's the lesson program organizers hope these kids will remember for the rest of their lives.