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Friday Feature: The National Personal Finance Challenge

Colleen Hroncich

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to serve as a judge in the Pennsylvania Personal Finance Challenge, which brought high school students from across the state to Pittsburgh to compete on a variety of personal finance topics. The event was the state qualifying tournament for the Council for Economic Education’s National Personal Finance Challenge.

Winning team PA Personal Finance Challenge.

Winning team in the 2024 PA Personal Finance Challenge.

The Pennsylvania competition started with each team acting as financial advisors for a fictitious family. Prior to the competition, the students received a packet that gave comprehensive financial information on the fictitious family. Using the details on the family’s income, savings, debts, and other expenses, the students had worked in teams of three or four to create a budget designed to meet the family’s stated financial goals. They presented their plans to a panel of judges and answered questions about it. The top two teams faced off in a 30‐​question quiz bowl, and the winning team earned $500 scholarships and an all‐​expense paid trip to the national competition.

Derek D ‘Angelo is director of curriculum development at the Foundation for Economic Education, which sponsored the Pennsylvania competition starting last year. But Derek has been involved in Michigan for many years. “When I was a teacher, before becoming Executive Director of the Michigan Council on Economic Education, I inquired about starting up a Personal Finance Challenge event in Michigan, but there was no support,” he explains. “Then I became Executive Director of the Michigan Council in 2015. My first order of business was to get a Personal Finance Challenge started and in 2016 we hosted the first event in Michigan. We have hosted it every year since for a total of eight annual events. We even were one of the very few states that still hosted the event virtually when everyone was out of school for Covid!”

Runners up PA Personal Finance Challenge.

Runners up in the 2024 PA Personal Finance Challenge.

Derek says he’s seen amazing results from this event. In Michigan, they have a Certified Financial Planner meet with students virtually the week before the presentation, which led to one student job shadowing with the financial planning advisor they met with during their preparations. And the educational value is immense.

“The students who participate have to learn about every aspect of personal finance. It is like a crash course in adulting,” he says. “Students have to know every aspect of budgeting, investing, insurance, credit, and more. I know a handful of students who have told me they have opened up a Roth IRA for their retirement from what they learned preparing their case study presentation.

“Additionally, students learn soft skills beyond the personal finance content. They spend a lot of time practicing their presentation skills. They learn to work as a team with their partners. They learn the role of visuals and other materials that may help them sell their solution to the judges.”

Encouraging students to learn beyond the terminology is also important to Derek. He advises discussing things like the average credit score, median price of a home, average age for a first‐​time home buyer, and median starting salary coming out of college. He points out that this knowledge will help them not only in the quiz bowl, but it will also help them develop realistic expectations and not be overwhelmed as they enter adulthood.

The Council for Economic Education provides a robust toolkit that teachers, parents, or other coaches can use to help students prepare for the challenge. It includes essential lessons and activities, supplemental lessons and activities, training videos, and quizzes. The materials cover six knowledge areas: earning income, spending, saving, managing credit, investing, and managing risk. These resources are designed to minimize the work for coaches who are helping students with the challenge.

Derek encourages teachers to give the National Personal Finance Challenge a try.

There will always be an excuse or reason you can find to not participate. It is much like the mentality of going to the gym and working out or running. You can say you are too busy, or that the students won’t have a chance at winning, or that it is hard to get a substitute teacher, etc. But the Personal Finance Challenge event provides a perfect environment for student learning. It has a real‐​life application. It is authentic. There is no one correct answer and often the answer is messy and not perfect. You are providing students with a positive experience and memory they will have forever about their time in your class. And it doesn’t even matter if they win or lose. The students will learn something and have fun doing it. Everything has a cost. In this case the benefits of participating far exceed the costs.

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