How to Make Financial Education Rewarding and Fun for All Types of Students

Financial education can be a stressful topic.

There is so much that can go into someone’s relationship with money. We all have unique socioeconomic upbringings, and there are systemic forces related to wealth that are biased against women, as well as those from historically marginalized racial backgrounds. 

Also, keep in mind that everyone has varied backgrounds in terms of how much their families discussed money (if at all). If they did talk about it, how was it framed? Was it always frustrations surrounding scarcity or was it discussed in a positive, genuine way? 

We can’t talk about money without acknowledging all of these influences. Yet, we can work to make this topic as palatable and interesting for students as possible. It’s important to know the basics of our economic system so you can make it work for you, while we as a society work to dismantle systemic prejudices. 

Anyone can benefit from knowing how to set up a basic budget, understanding retirement accounts, and utilizing smart money-saving tips.

There are a few ways that we can make financial education for students more fun and engaging. I’ve personally experienced the benefit of these strategies, which helped me to get my financial act together later than I should have. I was intimidated for far too long, so I wish I had more opportunities like these when I was a student.

4 Tips

1. Use relatable metaphors

An organization that’s local to me in Baltimore, InvestEd, recently held an event at a brewery. The presenters related basic financial concepts to experiences people can have in a taproom. 

Having it at a brewery really helped cement their metaphors. For example, they had volunteers from the crowd pour beers straight from the tap without any training. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t do as well as the bartender, which illustrated the value of getting expert help.

This point would have had much less impactful if the facilitators had simply told us about it without a demonstration. Their other metaphors included how you sample products before you commit, and how most people diversify their choices (as illustrated through beer orders).

I really enjoyed it, and it allowed me to connect in a refreshingly different way with their message and company. 

There are many other fun metaphors you can make to help students get excited about basic financial concepts. 

For example, you can give students a sample student organization budget (perhaps depicted by a set amount of fun-size candy bars), with a list of expenses, and challenge them to allot their limited resources wisely. You could even introduce unexpected costs, like needing to replace equipment, fluctuating food prices, or needing to pay more than expected for marketing

Another idea is to talk to students about their desires to work while in school… and the opportunity costs that come with that. A metaphor here is how in a choose your own adventure book; whatever choice you make means you are forgoing other paths.

You could also highlight the value of living within your means and saving, while still treating yourself every once in a while. A metaphor here could be The Sims. In this video game, players must care for a virtual person who wants to have fun but also needs to rest, work, and pay their bills. 

Metaphors can be a great way to make financial education fun, relaxed, and relatable! 

2. Normalize behaviors

Our relationships with money can involve a lot of shame, guilt, and stress. We may feel like we should know better but don’t know who to ask in order to learn. 

Before we can really feel fully comfortable, it is important to normalize our financial behaviors. A lot of people don’t do some of the basic things that would be emphasized in a typical financial education class. So if anyone isn’t doing any of the above things, they’re not alone!

For example, the number of people who save regularly, have a budget, or contribute to their retirement consistently are nowhere near 100%. A recent study found that 27% of Americans have no savings at all., 33% don’t have a budget, and 21% aren’t saving for retirement. When it comes to adults aged 18-34 (a large percentage of our students), 63% feel anxious about their finances.

College students also have the distinction of taking out huge amounts of debt in the form of student loans, oftentimes at a very young age.

Highlighting these sorts of figures can help motivate students to at least start doing something. Any action will help them be better off than a lot of other people.

"Let's get the party started" gif, Cher

You can present these figures via trivia, complete with prizes for those students who get closest. Emphasize that getting into good habits early, such as setting up a savings account or buying stock, can help compound their positive financial effects.

3. Bring in authentic speakers

With such a sensitive topic, it can be a smart move to bring in some trained professionals. This shouldn’t be a topic that is lectured upon; it should be discussed empathetically, with genuine stories. It makes the abstract feel more real. 

You can even collaborate with individuals at your institution who have expertise in these areas. You’re bound to have a faculty member or someone who oversees institutional financing who would be willing to offer their time.

I’ve connected a lot with content from professionals who are acknowledging all of the systemic forces that make financial challenges so tough to overcome. 

Planet Money is a podcast I love. Ditto Marketplace. They both explain economic news in a very palatable way. Gaby Dunn, a YouTuber, comedian, author, and podcaster, is behind the Bad with Money book and podcast. I attribute a lot of my interest in this topic to Dunn’s stories that she shares in her book and podcast. She talks about financial education in such a raw and genuine way, which I didn’t even know I needed!

4. Offer Incentives

No matter how much you might advocate for a particular course of action, people will usually respond best to positive incentives. 

Rewarding students for behaving responsibly can be especially worthwhile when it comes to finances. Money is a serious business and if student leaders manage it irresponsibly, they can cause real harm to an organization. So, you can create a system that gives perks and benefits to the student organizations who get their monthly reimbursement requests in on time. This could take the shape of university swag, gift cards, or special promotion on social media. 

The goal here is that the rewards, even if everyone were to follow through and receive them, would be a welcome expense for your team. It would save you from having to chase down receipts. 

Financial education is especially relevant for students since they’re poised to be making more money after graduating and are getting ready to establish their lives.

Getting good habits started early allows the magic of opportunities like compounding interest to do their thing. This can also help students be more responsible with their own personal budgets as well as the budgets of their student organizations. 

Everyone should be more mindful of the power of having even just a little bit of basic financial knowledge. Offering financial education programming helps students to align their resources more closely to their goals.  We owe it to our students to give them this knowledge that they likely crave. That way, once they graduate, they’ll have a headstart on the whole “adulting” game.

Have how have you engaged your students in financial learning? We’d love to learn your stories! Message us @HelloPresence and @HigherEdGeek.

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Dustin Ramsdell

About the author: Dustin is a graduate of the Rutgers University College Student Affairs Ed.M Program. He is a proud nerd and self-affirmed "Higher Ed Geek" who is excited to connect with folks who share his love of deep conversations! Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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