Teaching Students About Debt: Best Free Resources & Activities
Activities to connect classroom financial learning to the real world
Teaching Students About Debt: Best Free Resources & Activities
When going into classrooms, I typically lead with the question, “Does anyone know what financial literacy means?” The majority of middle and high school students respond, “something to do with money.” They’re not wrong, but it’s a little more complicated than that. During these discussions, we go a bit more in depth about what it means to be good or bad with money, and how that often depends on income. Some students are able to make connections this way, but most students are able to better understand when they to get participate in a monthly budget simulation. I’ll share this simulation, and how it shows students the reality of expenses as they get older, as well as the take home amount, depending on career field and where they live.
I find that engagement with financial lessons increases when students can get an idea of their interests and take time exploring a bit more about them. This simulation is an attempt to have students bring their own interests into the curriculum, while also integrating technology This is a great introduction to middle school financial literacy for FACs, Math, Personal Finance teachers, and more, since it is a combination of real world skills and math practice.
I start this activity by asking if students have ever created a budget before or heard of it. It’s hard to ask students to create a budget for themselves if they’ve never seen one or don’t understand the reasoning behind it. Through group work or pair and share, they can discuss what things they would include in their monthly budget if they were to make one for themselves in their current grade.
FACS and Home and Careers teachers who also cover career exploration may want students to do that section of their curriculum first, as students can then look up the pay for the career field that they are interested in for this activity. Another option is to assign jobs to students or have them pick one the day of the activity. All students will need internet accessible devices in order to create their budget. Use this paycheck calculator to calculate take home pay based on the career they picked and the area students think they may want to live. This will give them a better idea of what their take home will be so they can start their ‘Life’ simulation.
I like to create options that are most likely for students just graduating college and beginning in the workforce. The four options I give to students are:
- Live at home and pay your parent/guardian $350 per month for rent
- Live in a studio apartment for $700 per month(no pet)
- Live in a one bedroom apartment for $850 per month (with option of pet)
- Find a friend in class to split the cost of a 2 bedroom apartment at $1,100 per month; both students have to agree to split rent (no pet)
This was a bit more difficult to give a generalized cost of, but I think it’s important for students to understand that there is the additional cost of utilities when they are planning to live in an apartment/buying a house. When we teach financial literacy and discuss the idea of creating a budget, this is something I think is important to factor in so students know to ask whether or not it is included as they get older. If there is an apartment location near your school that publicizes the cost of utilities, it might be more useful to use those numbers for this activity. Here are the monthly utilities costs that I suggest:
- Living at home, factor in $50 for utilities
- In the studio apartment, plan for $70
- In the one bedroom, plan for $85
- In a 2 bedroom, plan for $120, split between two people
Discussing grocery cost with middle and high school students is really interesting to me because students tend to pick based on the lifestyle they currently live. Each student has to pick an option and factor food cost into their personal budget. Even if they share the 2 bedroom, they will need to pay for their own food budget and not split it. Feel free to create other options if you have known food allergies in your classroom to increase student buy in!
- Ramen Life- Students will live off of processed foods only. It’s very cost effective at $50 a month. This is a good option for students who don’t know how to cook.
- Home Chef- This gives students the option for healthier meals and fresher food, however if they like to go out to eat often, then this wouldn’t be the best choice. If I’m in a class where there are many students who have coffee to-go cups from somewhere they stopped on their way into school, I won’t let them choose this option. This will cost students $120 a month.
- Restaurant Regular- A great option if some students are bringing food or drinks to class often. I explain this as both cooking at home but also having the flexibility to go out for lunch/dinner with friends a few days of the month, for $200 a month.
This is one thing I’ve found many students don’t realize the cost of, especially if they don’t have a car just yet. Depending on where you teach, you may want to edit the options you give to students.
- A car- $350, which will include insurance and two tanks of gas per month.
- A bus pass- If you live in a city, this is a great, financially friendly option for students at $70 a month. You may want to adjust this to more or less if you have more information on transportation options.
- If students can bike- $50, which includes repairs, maybe a tire pump, etc. for maintaining it every month.
- If health insurance, or basic insurance cost, is something that you’ve discussed in your classroom, you may want to have them factor that into their budget – $200 is a good start. Since I tried to make this ‘right out of college’ friendly, many students may still be on their guardian’s health insurance plan.
- Technology, most students have phones. If they are already on their own plan or pay for their phones, have them factor in whatever they are currently paying into their budget. If they don’t pay for their own phone or have one, have students add $100 a month into their budget. If you know video games are well-liked in your classroom, I would have students who play video games a certain number of nights per week (up to you to decide) have them add in $50 a month.
- Pets, those students who chose the one bedroom option, whether for more space or for an animal, have them factor in $120 a month for vet bills, food, toys, etc.
- Gym, many students may want to have a gym membership in their budget. An easy way to determine who gets charged the $25 fee is whether they participate in any after school activity (arts, sports, etc.). If they do, then have them add in $25 to their budget.
Once students get through the whole simulation, have them add up the total cost of their expenses for the month. They will then use the take home pay they calculated earlier to determine what they have left over, if they have any. If you’ve already covered savings, have all students contribute a certain amount to savings. If you have determined that students went to college, have them find out the cost of college for their 2 or four years. They can enter in the amount their college cost into this debt calculator. They will need to get a monthly payment by determining how long they want to pay their student loans off for. Once they have that student loan payment, they will also add that into their monthly budget.
After completing this simulation I love finding out who had money left over for savings and retirement and who didn’t have any money left to spend. This is a great opportunity for a classroom discussion! Here are some possible questions to get the class to reflect on the budget simulation:
Why didn’t they have money left?
Or why did they have so much left to contribute to their savings?
What was surprising about creating a budget?
Were there expenses included that they hadn’t thought about before?
Why do you think it’s important to create a budget?