Face the Fickle Finger of Fate

CU role-playing game gives young people a taste of real-life finances.

November 23, 2009

My youngest son and his fiancé are both police officers in their mid-20s. This summer they took advantage of the depressed housing market and bought their first house for well under its appraised value, and scored a 4.75% fixed-rate mortgage in the process. They also received the $8,000 tax credit.

It was a good deal for the smart young money managers and credit union members. Then the fickle finger of fate touched them.

The used lawn mower they bought stopped working after the first few mows. Not a big deal—a small-engine repair shop fixed it. Then, the six-year-old water heater needed to be replaced; a bigger deal than the lawn mower. But when their dogs decided to use their new living room couch as a lavatory, now that was a very big deal.

Welcome to the wonderful world of home ownership. Kidding aside, their ordeal brought to mind the Mad City Money™ simulation kit produced for credit unions by CUNA. It's a role-playing game giving young people a taste of the real world. Students take on adult roles: They’re given jobs, incomes, families, and debt. Their challenge is to visit merchants to select housing, transportation, food, clothing, day care, and other wants and needs while building a budget.

The game allows participants to make mistakes—and suffer consequences of their decisions—in a realistic, but fun, setting. They’re also touched unexpectedly by someone playing the “fickle finger of fate”—with bad news, like the need to buy a new water heater, or with good news, like a bonus at work.

Most participants are surprised to learn they can’t have big houses and new trucks on their salaries and also pay for day care and groceries. Once the shock wears off, they re-evaluate choices and manage their money effectively with advice from experts—including credit union staff.

Nearly 200 credit unions are using Mad City Money in the nation’s schools. Thanks to Heartland Credit Union’s Josie Matuszak, marketing manager, and Robin Marohn, vice president of marketing and business development, in Madison, Wis., Mad City Money was in all four of the city’s public high schools as part of “Money Smart Week” in October, drawing up to 1,500 teens.

Bruce Frei, vice president of business development, Indianhead Credit Union in Spooner, Wis., has sponsored the program in several schools in his area as well, and is working to make it part of the school district’s curriculum.

SchoolsFirst Federal Credit Union in Santa Ana, Calif., and the California and Nevada Credit Union Leagues planned a two-hour simulation with Mad City Money at the leagues’ recent annual meeting and convention.

Mad City Money’s value recently was recognized when it was added as a state-approved resource in Wisconsin’s Financial Literacy: TEACH IT!  This is a new, multimedia professional development resource for Wisconsin teachers, designed around the state’s new personal financial literacy standards. And thanks to the efforts of Madison high schools, the Mad City Money program is one of the resources listed for grades nine through 12.

Nothing underscores the appalling state of financial literacy in the U.S. than the Great Recession and the endless stream of sad stories of foreclosure, bankruptcy, job loss, and unmanageable debt, cutting across all income and education levels. Credit unions using Mad City Money as an outreach tool within their schools and communities are doing a great service, while visibly demonstrating the role credit unions play and why they are different.

MARK CONDON is the former senior vice president, business and consumer publishing for CUNA.