"Win or lose, when the Challenge ends, these students are empowered," says Personal Finance Teacher Betsy Nilsen

I've been at Cape Elizabeth High School for 33 years and taught at the college level for six years before that. Cape Elizabeth is a small school of 500 students, a high-achieving, college-oriented, community-driven school in a small town on the coast of Maine (in Greater Portland).

Our school does an excellent job preparing students for college, but we hadn't been preparing them (financially) for life. In 2008, I piloted a one-semester course in Personal Finance and it has been a popular elective choice ever since. The course is offered to students in grades 10-12 with preference given to upperclassmen.

I started using Budget Challenge in 2014. I love that the program has been modified and updated over the years. It is an exciting way to engage students in real-world decisions and problem-solving.

All of the elements of Budget Challenge are beneficial to my students. I particularly like the "unexpected events" which do happen in real life. Students have to pivot and reassess what they can do with that paycheck and still meet all of their obligations. This simulation mimics the lives of so many people today living paycheck to paycheck. The struggles associated with limited funds help them understand the benefits of saving and setting that as a priority. Even though they don't like the “average American” charges on their credit card, which are dictated in the Simulation, it helps them understand how easy it is to swipe your way into debt. I actually get excited when they say “I wouldn't buy that!” (too bad, you did).

I think the initial choices they need to make regarding roommates, utilities, bank accounts, credit cards, insurance, loans, 401k, etc. are the most challenging. Students just don't have any experience - or even knowledge of most of those items. Very few of them have any financial independence. However, it does present an opportunity to discuss the different options and their impact.

I like the way the program has evolved over time and how costs are adapted from year to year. This year's option to dip into the emergency fund is a great exercise in actually using those funds and then working to replenish them. The realism around the myriad of decisions that a new grad needs to make is wonderful. I also feel the budget spreadsheet allows students to practice forecasting their expenses and gives them a broader view of their income and where it goes. Exposure to spreadsheets and mastery of their functions is an important skill.

My recommendation is that all teachers play along with their students, especially teachers new to the Challenge. It's a great way to start conversations about what's pending, what's due soon, how well you are managing trophy goals etc.

The growth, commitment, and success of so many students is especially gratifying. It's fun when they buy into their new (fictitious) lives. We joke about the taking the flight to Cincinnati and finding their way around the city. I post the weather in Ohio on the board and ask who their roommates will be. That is an important conversation since choosing the right roommate has many challenges.

Win or lose, when the Challenge ends, these students are empowered. They have new skills and experience and can make good decisions. They have learned from poor choices. Watching their progress nationally is also a great incentive. Who doesn't like a little friendly competition? It's fun to watch their standing change from week to week.

Teaching Personal Finance has been a highlight of my career at Cape Elizabeth High School. It is rewarding to watch students gain confidence in their financial skills and, more importantly, in themselves as they look ahead to life after high school. Having a program like the Budget Challenge to supplement the curriculum has made a significant difference.

Maine currently has a bill under consideration in our State Legislature (LD1284, An Act to Require Personal Finance to be Taught as a Separate Course to Obtain a High School Diploma). I'm hopeful we will join so many other states in the country that believe financial literacy is essential.