Fibre Federal: Financial Reality Fairs Give Students a Dose of Reality

“Financial education is becoming more and more important for us. This is not something we do to get a return on our investment for the credit union. It’s what we do for the community.”
Shannon Cahoon, Community Outreach Coordinator, Fibre Federal

A teen bought a fancy car which left him no money for an apartment. Another discovered that a minimum wage job could not support the lifestyle he wanted. A young woman regretted having been talked into a cruise she couldn’t afford.

All life lessons learned at Financial Reality Fairs organized by Longview-based Fibre Federal in 2013 and 2014.

“Financial education is becoming more and more important for us,” says Shannon Cahoon, Fibre’s Community Outreach Coordinator. “This is not something we do to get a return on our investment for the credit union. It’s what we do for the community.”

Financial Reality Fairs put participants through the paces of actual budgeting and spending scenarios. High school students are assigned a job or career and given a worksheet estimating their take-home pay after taxes and, depending on their situation, student loan payments.

The remaining dollars must cover housing, transportation, clothing, food, and entertainment. They can opt to live at home, but they’ll have to pay rent to their parents. They can adopt a pet, but they’ll have to budget for vet bills.

And, yes, they must put at least a few dollars each month into savings.

More than 70 volunteers from the credit union and community partners operate “booths” on fair day. Participants are required to visit each station to learn about their purchasing options.

In their regular professional roles, many of the volunteers are dedicated to helping people make smart choices. Yet, as fair volunteers, they are encouraged to reflect reality as much as possible. For example, Cahoon said her credit union’s CFO excelled in the role of car salesman and sold participants “the most ridiculous” cars.

Every participant also has to spin the “Wheel of Reality,” simulating the unknowns that happen with everyone’s finances.

Spin the wheel and you learn your mom went into the hospital and can’t work. You need to send her $400. Spin the wheel and you discover grandma sent you $50 for your birthday.

“That wrench in the gears of life happens sometimes. It was a good lesson for them,” says Vallerie Sue Edmunson, who teaches personal finance at R.A. Long High School.

However, Edmunson says her favorite part of the event was the end, when her students sat down one-on-one with a financial advisor to discuss the decisions they’d made.

“That made a huge impact,” she says, not just on the students but by bringing the school and community together.

About 220 participated in Financial Reality Fairs in October 2013 and April 2014, with more—and larger—Financial Reality Fairs in the planning stages.

Melissa Cozadd, with the Lower Columbia Community Action Program, helped organize and attended both fairs. What impressed her, she said, were the conversations she overheard.

“I saw parents having conversations with their children about budget and including them in their decisions—the whole family together,” she says. “I believe it opened up conversations that would never have happened before.”

The credit unions of Oregon and Washington not only improve their members’ lives, they are foundational to the entire Northwest economy. Learn more here.

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