BECU Closes all Branches to Teach Teens Financial Literacy

A second-floor classroom at Seattle’s Franklin High School was transformed October 20 into a marketplace for all of life’s essentials—and many of its indulgences. Volunteers in red t-shirts offered everything from housing to video game systems, and students from Barbara Lynch’s Business Education class jumped from table to table, building a life while trying to stay on budget.

The red t-shirts were worn by employees of BECU, which closed all of its branches for the first half of the day to send its 1,300 staff into the community to run “financial reality fairs” for high school students around Puget Sound. They called the event “Closing for Good,” and reached over 3,000 students at 21 high schools.

Recent studies indicate that American teens lag behind in financial literacy, and Washington teens are no different. In fact, Washington state as a whole recently ranked 45th in the nation in financial literacy, according to a Debt.com study, scoring an ‘F’ for its efforts to improve financial literacy in high schools.

The reality fairs, like the one in Lynch’s classroom, are designed to teach students the fundamentals of budgeting. Upon entering the fair each student was randomly given a career and an income. After shopping for their needs and wants they tried to balance their budgets, and then got financial counseling from the BECU staff.

“I’ve learned more about financial management today than from anything else in my life,” said Kathleen Le, a senior at Franklin. She said that it’s important for events like this to come to schools like Franklin that serve many low-income students. “A lot of parents here make minimum wage or are unemployed. We want to learn to do better than our parents, to stay out of debt.”

Le started the fair with the well-paid profession of Pediatrician. “By the end I was $1,000 over budget, but construction workers and plumbers were fine,” she said. “I learned that just because you have a good job doesn’t mean you get everything you want.”

One of the volunteer financial counselors in the red shirts was BECU President and CEO Benson Porter, who spent the morning shoulder to shoulder with staff, counseling students on balancing their budgets.

“We want to make sure that the teens in our community understand personal finances and are prepared as they enter the next stage of their lives,” said BECU CEO Benson Porter. “Investing in the financial well-being of students is the right move as a community member and as a business. Starting adulthood on firm financial footing makes for healthier, happier lives and a healthier, happier economy.”

Ms. Lynch was thrilled to host the event for her Business Education class. She’s the lead teacher for Franklin’s Academy of Finance—one of four academies that students can choose from—which gives students a grounding in economics, entrepreneurship, and business.

“Any education we give these kids, no one can take away. Especially financial education,” she said. “Many of us graduate from high school and only use algebra a few more times, but budgeting and saving will serve these students for a lifetime.”

“Not only did the financial reality fair give students a chance to learn critical life skills,” said Lynch, “but this is a great chance for them to meet adults from outside their communities, to look them in the eye and shake hands.”

Lynch said that many Franklin students come from low-income households where English might not be the primary language, and where good personal finance might not be modeled. “Learning is generational,” she said. “The way we break the cycle of poverty is to learn our way out of it.”

Questions about this story? Contact James Pearson: 206.340.4790, jpearson@nwcua.org.

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