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Willmar, Minn., seventh-graders learn about budgeting using family’s real expenses

Student Laura Christianson, left, said it was overwhelming to see the true expenses of her family, and Jenna Stauffenecker said the exercise has helped her to start thinking about her future. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams) 1 / 5
Willmar family and consumer sciences students Madison McDowell, left, and Bridget Reuss answer questions about their assignment of estimating what their parents spend to run their households. Students then talk with their parents about the real figures. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams) 2 / 5
Student Josiah Swanson said an assignment about household budgeting has convinced him of the need to stay in school. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)3 / 5
Willmar student Emma Rosen reviews her work for a class assignment about household budgeting. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)4 / 5
Family and consumer sciences teacher Sue Thell teaches students about budgeting by having them discuss their own family expenses with their parents. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)5 / 5

WILLMAR — Seventh-grader Gabriella Larson thinks things like food and housing are way too expensive.

Many students at Willmar Middle School feel that way when they find how much their parents have to spend on the necessities of life.

Their surprise comes after family and consumer sciences teacher Sue Thell assigns them to talk to their parents about family expenses.

It’s usually an eye-opener. One boy said his family’s mortgage payment is actually 12 times more than his initial guess.

“I never realized how many things we buy that are wants and not needs,” said Bridget Reuss. When she’s able to shop for clothes or makeup now, she added, she appreciates her parents’ generosity even more.

Each year, Thell has her students guess how much their families spend on things like housing, food, clothing and utilities. Then they take the worksheet home and go over it with their parents.

Those types of revelations are fairly common, Thell said. She asks parents to sign a form that is returned to her, so she knows students completed the assignment. She does not see anyone’s family expense sheet and doesn’t want to see it.

A second part of the exercise is to give each student a different job and family situation. They develop a monthly budget based on their incomes. Someone with a family of four and a job at a fast food restaurant came up short at the end of the month. So did an administrative assistant with a family of five. A veterinarian had $2,000 left over at the end of the month.

For each student, a roadblock popped up to affect the monthly budgets. It could be big, like a car breaking down, or smaller, like growing kids needing new shoes.

Thell said she and another teacher developed the family expenses exercise about 15 years ago, when current state standards required a unit on consumerism.

Standards have changed since then, but she found the unit so useful that she kept it and adapted it over the years. She updates the salaries every two years and tries to keep the figures as realistic as possible.

When it comes to their own family’s expenses, the students are usually all over the map, she said.

“Some are dead-on, because their parents talk about it,” she said.

The talk about money gives her a good, practical way to encourage her students to stay in school and work hard, Thell said.

Sometimes she heard from parents who say they are glad they talked about money with their kids, she added. “I think it’s a very valuable unit.”

A group of Thell’s students talked a week ago about how the class assignment had changed their perspectives about money and family budgets.

“It’s kind of overwhelming to see how much they pay,” said Laura Christianson.

Several students said their parents had talked to them about other expenses, too, like how they budget to pay for school activities.

 “My mom said she thought I knew all of this,” Laura said.

“My mom said she was glad we did it,” said Emma Rosen.

Jenna Stauffenecker said the class helped her start thinking about the future and what she needs to do to be ready for it.

“It was a good experience,” Laura said. “It’s kinda scary,” added Madison McDowell.

“I don’t know how people think they can make it if they drop out of school and work at Burger King,” said Josiah Swanson. Along with learning the value of money, he said, he has been convinced that he needs to stay in school, too.

Many of the students said they are thinking more about staying in high school and what occupations interest them.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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