Students learn personal finance in a game of ‘Get a Life’

By Stephen Baldwin, RealWV

Young people often get a bad rap for not understanding personal finance. But how are they supposed to know how to manage money if they don’t have experience doing so? 

“Get a Life,” a program run by the West Virginia State Treasurer’s Office, gives them that real-world experience in a classroom setting. It’s set up like a giant board game, and they made a visit to the students at Greenbrier West High School this past week.

Katie Holstein explains “Get a Life” to the students of Greenbrier West High School. Photo by Real WV.

Students are given a minimum-wage job which they could expect to receive with a high school diploma. That job correlates to a monthly salary. The students must then build a life using their available salary. 

“We had to take that and buy a car, buy a house, utilities, groceries, appliances, all of it,” said senior Roy Loudermilk. “We had to buy all of that and make responsible decisions to live and stay out of debt on a minimum wage job.” 

Most students went into debt immediately, leading them to downsize their house or car, for example, but that often wasn’t enough to balance their checkbooks. Roy said he purposely chose less expensive items in order to try and be responsible, but he still came up short in the end. 

“It was definitely an eye opening experience,” senior Lexxi Bragg agreed. “You see these things around your house like your stove and fridge and your cell phone and internet, but you really don’t take in how much that all costs until you have these experiences.” 

Students move from one station to the next, obtaining gasoline or furniture from community volunteers who act as salespeople. Meanwhile, other volunteers randomly hand cards to students with unexpected expenses such as a health scare or a broken down car. 

“It really puts things into perspective,” Lexxi continued. “Stuff is not cheap. Life is way harder out of high school.”

Once students complete a month’s worth of expenses in “Get a Life,” they are given a second salary. This time, it’s based on holding a job with a college or technical school degree that comes with a higher salary. They repeat the same process again, buying what they need to get by for the month. 

“It was easier to stay on budget making more money, but it was still a challenge,” senior Trent Parker told The RealWV. “Because I had a family of five, groceries for us were $650. That’s a lot of money. And you’ve got to have groceries.”

Katie Holstein is a Financial Education Specialist for the Treasurer’s Office. She goes on the road four days per week to help folks learn about personal finance across southern West Virginia. She anticipates visiting more than 70 schools this year. 

“The purpose is to teach kids how to budget money and to really think about higher education beyond high school,” said Katie. “They see the two different lives they’ll have–the minimum wage job versus the higher education job. They’ll get to see how much it takes to live both ways.”

She says that no matter where she goes and operates “Get a Life,” the results are always the same. Students learn to better appreciate what their parents provide them, and their eyes are opened to how important it is to make a decent living. “It opens their eyes.” 

Which then allows her to pitch students on two options they have with the Treasurer’s office–the Smart 529 program and the Jumpstart program. Students can utilize these programs to save money for college or trade school, positioning to earn more when it’s time to enter the real world. 

“I see my parents do this all the time,” Trent concluded. “But you don’t really understand how much goes into it until it’s all up to you. You don’t really realize how much life costs until you see it upclose.” 

“I’m so thankful I got to experience this,” Lexxi said afterwards. “I never realized, but now I do.”

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