Making the Grade: APS seniors master the money monster

The next Budget Challenge begins in August. More information is online at

While working folks are sorting through pay stubs and receipts, hoping to snag a refund on April 15, 70 students at Carver Early College are getting a taste of how complicated managing money can be. Seniors at the southwest Atlanta school are part of a 9-week simulation that presents real-world problems around juggling income and expenses. That authenticity caught the interest of math teacher Sajata Latten.

“I thought it was perfect for our students taking economics because it’s theory and practice grouped as one,” she said. “And the kids have enjoyed it while they’re learning a lot.”

Free to high school and home school teachers, the H&R Block Budget Challenge is a national program that was first offered in Georgia last year, when 590 students signed up. This year, almost 1,400 students at 29 high schools are taking part.

The simulation starts students off with a monthly income, followed by a menu of options from which they pick the specifics of the bills they’ll incur, from rent to health insurance. Throughout the program, the students and teachers are notified if they miss a bill payment or if life interferes with their best-laid plans.

“Students have received notices that their personal computer was stolen or a tire blew out, which meant they had to file insurance claims or pay an unexpected bill,” said Latten. “But they also get a credit card with a limit, which does help when those bills come out of the blue, but it’s also hit home with many of them that having a credit card doesn’t mean they get to splurge.”

Students also vie to be the top money manager by amassing points for scoring well on quizzes and paying bills on time. In addition, top scorers across the country are eligible for a variety of scholarships.

“Since it is all on their phones, they know where everyone stands,” said Latten. “It creates some healthy competition.”

The simulation has also shown many students’ the reality of adult life, where bills don’t go away once they’re paid. “I don’t think they realized the consistency,” said Latten. “Now when their parents say, ‘We can’t buy that because I have to pay this bill,’ they have a better understanding.”

Senior Jamaan Parker wants to study accounting and already has a good handle on managing money, so he was comfortable with the simulation’s $3,000 monthly income. But the program taught him some unexpected lessons.

“I didn’t know interest could add up and hit so hard in a short period of time,” he said. “I’ve learned to budget very closely to get money into my 401K.”

Senior Deborah Fataki signed up for the simulation as a way to learn budgeting. Out of her $3,000-per-month income, she pays $650 for a one-bedroom apartment and has a $400 credit card bill.

“It’s helped me learn how to write checks and read bills - and some of them are very confusing,” she said. “I’ve had

to ask my mom to help me with some of them.”

Though this is the first time the academy has participated in the simulation, Latten said the results are so positive that it will be offered again in the fall.

“Our economics teacher has seen improvement in their academics; their knowledge base has expanded into stocks and IRAs,” said Latten. “For seniors applying to college and looking for scholarships, it’s made money real. They’re asking, ‘But how am I going to pay for it?’ more than I’ve seen in the last several years. What better way to get them prepared to go off on their own?”