Teacher Spotlight — Joe Schoenfeld

Elder High School teacher Joe Schoenfeld (Cincinnati, Ohio) gave us his insight into how Budget Challenge impacts his students and how Eagle Saving Bank Charitable Foundation has made it possible for his students to participate in Budget Challenge.

What is your favorite aspect of Budget Challenge?

Budget Challenge brings a lot of life and energy to our class.  Without a doubt, my favorite aspects of the Budget Challenge are the hands-on nature of the simulation and the competition.  The students are actively engaged in the simulation and get great practice reading invoices, writing checks, creating a budget and making financial decisions. 

I know my students also enjoy the competition aspect of the Budget Challenge.  The students pay attention to who are the highest ranked students in class.  There is often good-natured ribbing going on before class about who just overtook who on the leaderboard.  I have several sections of Personal Finance classes competing against each other each semester.  We have donut or pizza prizes for the highest rated class.  That leads to interest in how the other classes are doing and builds some positive peer pressure in each section for classmates to “pay your bills on time!”  As a class, we also enjoy seeing how we stack up against other schools who are playing in the same simulation.  One of our classes last semester took pride in finishing at the top of the leaderboard.  The national rankings were a motivating factor for the students.  The competition aspect also helped the students realize that mistakes will happen and you can lose points in the game.  For many of us, that is going to happen.  But the students also realize that recognizing the mistake and fixing it in a timely manner helps your score bounce back, just as will help in real life situations.

What is the biggest reward as a teacher when using Budget Challenge? 

As a teacher, one of the biggest rewards to playing Budget Challenge is that it gives all my students a common experience.  In real-life, my classes are a mixture of students with and without jobs, paychecks, savings and checking accounts, investments, and responsibilities for expenses within their families.  But, once we start the Budget Challenge, we all are junior engineers with a paycheck, 401(k), liabilities, expenses, and very specific goals (trophies) for the future.  I find this common experience particularly useful when teaching units throughout the  semester.  When we get to the Insurance lesson, I know the students will grasp the concepts of premium and deductible much more clearly once we have paid our bills in the simulation and possibly had an unexpected event leading to a claim.  Lessons on Investing, Retirement Planning, Student Loans, FICO scores, and particularly Budgeting and Banking all seem more real and relevant because of our experiences with Budget Challenge.  I can move through these topics more quickly as the students are already familiar with them through their participation in Budget Challenge.  In fact, I use Budget Challenge examples all the time in class. It is a wealth of pertinent experience to draw from for our entire semester.  I can ask the students to tell me the difference between a liability and an expense (fixed, variable, intermittent) by using examples from our vendors in Budget Challenge.  You can count on the Widget Co. being invoked numerous times when we are talking about gross & net pay, withholdings, 401(k) and tax-favored retirement plans.  Because of our shared experience, the students can all relate to these examples.  Budget Challenge makes all our Personal Finance material more understandable and helps me connect better with the students.  These topics are no longer just theory.  We have learned by doing.

What is the biggest challenge for students participating in Budget Challenge?  

There are a couple of challenges for the students, especially early in the simulation. One is getting off to a good start and understanding how the simulation rewards positive behavior and penalizes negative behavior.  That is why I find it important to spend time in class getting the students off on the right foot making vendor selections and helping them populate their Cash Flow Spreadsheet.  I feel the extra time and work spent at the beginning of the simulation is well worth the effort because most of the students then can move ahead more independently in the simulation as they understand how it works.

Another big challenge is when a student is absent for a few days at the beginning of the simulation.  There is so much to cover in the week leading up to the simulation and once it becomes live.  Several decisions and actions need to be made early in the simulation.  When a student is absent for those days it can be challenging to help him avoid scoring penalties, especially when you don’t have that face to face time.  Absences later in the game aren’t as troublesome because by that time the students know the routine and how to handle paying bills and making 401(k) contributions.

Do you have a Budget Challenge story that is especially memorable? 

Two years ago, a first-semester sophomore named Ethan W., raised his hand during the first week of the simulation with an observation that even though his recently received credit card invoice said his credit card bill wasn’t due for over a week, he thought it would be wise to pay it early and earn credit utilization points as a result.  I was so impressed with his thinking,  especially since I had never thought of that myself, that I exclaimed to the class, “Ethan W. is a genius!” and asked Ethan to explain again to his classmates why he made that intelligent decision.  A few of them actually understood his reasoning; for others it was just too early in the game to make sense.

Later that day I repeated the story to my other classes. And ever since that day, I repeat that story in each class every semester, with a very dramatic, “Ethan W. is a genius.  You can tell him I said that - and here’s why…”  Well, Ethan W. has buddies in each of those classes who know that, perhaps, Ethan W. is not really a genius, so they laugh at me when I say it.  But I enjoy giving credit where it is due.  Ethan will usually see me somewhere in the hall within a week and with a sheepish smile say “thanks for the shout out, Coach.”

What do you think is the most important takeaway from the simulation?

After doing the Budget Challenge, I think the majority of students realize that much of their adult financial lives are not going to be some crazy, unpredictable ride that they have little or no control over.  Taking time to plan “money in and money out” will show there are a few unexpected events, but much of our financial lives is regular and predictable. 

When I ask my students at the end of the semester if they feel we should continue doing the Budget Challenge in the future, the overwhelming response is YES.  The kids enjoy the Budget Challenge, feel it is beneficial, enjoy the competition, and recommend future classes should have the same opportunity.  

In addition to teaching Personal Finance, I also coach basketball at our school.

Before we play our first basketball game each winter, I am glad we have a few scrimmages where we can learn what we are doing well and where we need to improve.  I equate Budget Challenge with a tough pre-season scrimmage.  Budget Challenge is not easy (most worthwhile things aren’t easy), but learning lessons that will help us improve for real-life situations coming up quickly in our future is invaluable.  Mistakes made and lessons learned in Budget Challenge can save us a lot of frustration, and money, when the real “game” begins.  Conversely, doing well in aspects of Budget Challenge gives the students confidence that they can handle important financial decisions and duties in the real world.  There really is no substitute for quality practice reps.  To me, that is what the Budget Challenge is all about. 

I would like to acknowledge our sponsor, Eagle Saving Bank Charitable Foundation, for helping cover part of the registration expense.  Without them we wouldn’t be able to participate.  I hope other teachers won’t be scared off by the price of Budget Challenge, but will look for sponsorships, as we are fortunate to have, so that their students can have this wonderful opportunity.  It is a first-class program.

My Personal Finance course at Elder HS is a one-semester elective course open to sophomores, juniors and seniors.  Thankfully most students choose to take it sometime before they graduate.  I like to wait several weeks into the semester before beginning the Budget Challenge for two main reasons.  One, I think it is helpful if the students have a little background knowledge in Financial Literacy/Personal Finance before beginning the simulation.  I feel learning the material and learning the process of playing the simulation all at once might be too overwhelming.  Secondly, it usually takes me about a week to get the students to feel somewhat comfortable with the process of playing the game and getting all the vendor selections completed, cash flow spreadsheet populated, and understanding due dates, and trophy deadlines.

The mission of  Eagle Saving Bank Charitable Foundation is to support through funding, not-for-profit groups, institutions, schools or other organizations in our communities for the purpose of educating the general public about personal finance as a way of improving their financial stability and quality of life.