A bite of financial reality

Screenshot of virtual meeting composed of faculty and studentsWe have all been in the position where we have had to make tough financial decisions based on income and financial commitments. Now more than ever, we see millions of Americans having to make those decisions due to the pandemic. 

Recently, more than 300 students in several high schools in West Michigan improved their financial literacy through the Financial Reality Fair, a partnership between WMU’s Sanford Center for Financial Planning and Wellness and Arbor Financial Credit Union.

The fair, which has been an in-person, half-day event in the past, transitioned to a virtual model this year that used simulation, followed by discussion, to deliver meaningful content within a single class period during the school day.

“I surveyed teachers who had brought their students to the Financial Reality Fair at the Haworth College of Business in prior years to see if they were interested in participating in a virtual fair,” says Todd Mora, program manager for the Sanford Center for Financial Planning and Wellness. “I received a very strong positive response that teachers both wanted to have their students participate and found there was great value for the students.”

Using the Michigan Credit Union League’s app “Bite of Reality,” Mora and representatives from Arbor engaged with students to deliver takeaways efficiently via the virtual platform.  

And, though there are challenges in delivering content remotely, there was a lot of opportunity to connect with more local high schools and tailor the fair to their individual schedules, which allowed program organizers to connect with three times as many students as in previous years. 

What does the app highlight for students?

“The fair enables students to choose a career that interests them,” says Katelynn Flowers, community and social media specialist at Arbor Financial Credit Union. “Once they choose an occupation, they’re provided with an average yet realistic salary, credit score, loan payment and debt payment. With these realistic expenses and salaries, students are equipped with the information needed to make financial decisions that replicate what they will experience when they take their first steps to being financially independent.”

It’s the hands-on experience that is the real benefit to the students, according to their teachers.

“I was hoping to let students know what types of choices people have to make in order to live within their means,” says Lori Pelton, teacher at Schoolcraft High School, where several of her business classes participated in the fair. “Making students aware of prices, decisions and financial risks was my goal for the interaction. Students had their eyes opened to the costs of housing, transportation and lifestyle expenses in relation to expected salary. I even had one student start seriously rethinking a career choice when he saw it couldn’t support his desired lifestyle.” 

Having students begin to think more deeply about finances and explore ways to achieve goals is just what representatives from Arbor were hoping for. “Students walk away realizing that responsible decision making is essential to their quality of life,” says Flowers. “Financial education is so important when looking at future successes, and we want to build that baseline early with real-life scenarios.”

One of those real-life scenarios is the current COVID-19 pandemic, or a similar event that might cause job loss. 

“The pandemic and the impact on millions of Americans’ personal finances was an impetus for discussions regarding saving, financial planning and budgeting,” says Mora. “Though the economic impact of the pandemic is far-reaching, we spoke about its effect on personal finances and how sound personal financial behaviors can help relieve some of the stress of difficult times. We asked students questions about how they managed during the ‘normal’ financial times presented in the simulation and what it would be like if they lost their job. Preparing students to think about the impact of a sudden financial catastrophe gets them thinking more long-range, which is helpful in their development as financial decision makers.”

Contextualizing financial decisions is what the Financial Realty Fair is all about, and this year has allowed those examples to resonate with students more than ever.