Mad City Money: Financial literacy for teens at TCPL

By E.C. Barrett
Tompkins Weekly

ITHACA – The Tompkins County Public Library is hosting a traveling exhibit and series of financial literacy programs throughout the month of April to introduce area teens to the complex negotiations of living expenses, savings and debt.
Capping the month of financial education, Tompkins County teens are invited to TCPL to play the life-simulation game Mad City Money, from 4:30-6:30 pm. Thursday, April 27.

Photo Provided
Regina DeMauro, Tompkins County Public Library teen services librarian, stands in front of part of the financial literacy exhibit on display at the library.

According to Teen Services Librarian Regina DeMauro, Mad City Money is a live-action variation of The Game of Life, offered by the Credit Union National Association, aimed at getting kids to think about how to budget their money after graduation.
“Participants are given a packet of information at the start of the game with details about their life, finding out, for example, that they have a partner, two children and $30,000 in student loan debt and a job that makes $40,000 a year,” DeMauro said.

Players then travel to vendor stations, manned by community volunteers, where they are asked to make decisions about what they need to buy, want to have, and can afford to purchase while still paying their bills.
“They have to figure out how they’re going to pay for childcare, transportation to their job, and whether or not they want a big-screen TV or to have really nice clothes,” explained DeMauro. “There will be in-game vendors trying to up-sell them on things as well, just like in real life. When you shop for a car, the salespeople are going to try and push the nicer car with the fancier features on you, so they’ll have to make the decision about what they can afford.”

For DeMauro, bringing financial education to teens is particularly important in an era of unprecedented student loan debt and easy credit card access. In 2016, the average college graduate left school with a little more than $37,000 in student loan debt only to enter a work force in which the average millennial makes 20 percent less than baby boomers did at the same stage of life.

Joe Cummins, community development educator for Alternatives Federal Credit Union, has been running the Mad City Money program for local organizations like GIAC, New Roots, and the Ithaca Youth Bureau, for around seven years. Last year, 300 Ithaca High School seniors participated in the program with such positive feedback Cummins plans to make it an annual event.
“They don’t really know what they’re going to earn after they graduate. This program gives them a job title and a salary and having to negotiate that makes it very real for them,” Cummins said. “What’s interesting is that I have them evaluate the program afterwards and they answer a question about whether or not they would recommend the program to a friend and just about everyone writes ‘yes.’ For a program teaching financial education to a teenager, I think that’s remarkable.”

Unsurprisingly, high school students are interested in being out of school and on their own and, according to Cummins, the effectiveness of the program is in giving them an opportunity to get that experience in a more immediate way than sitting at a desk or reading from a book.
“We ask them to think about things they never have to think about,” he said. “When they find out their in-game child costs a lot of money, they’re really upset, and for that reason alone I think the program is successful.
“We have students come out of there and say, ‘I’m not going to have children,’ or ‘children are just so expensive,’” Cummins added. “We’ve had parents report that their child has apologized to them after the program. That makes a very big impact, the realization that children are not free.”

Cummins, who has taught adult money management courses at AFCU for 17 years, says the main barrier to financial literacy is a lack of communication around money.
“The adults in my class say they graduated from high school or college, got a job, earned money and started spending money with no support or education around how to do this,” Cummins said. “We’re taught not to talk about money or if we do it’s frightening because it was frightening when you were growing up and you heard your parents fighting about money, or you fight with your family about money.”

He sees Mad City Money as a way to get teens in the habit of talking about money.
“It gives them the opportunity to make what they recognize as real life decisions: what car to get, how many cars, what type of housing, furniture, clothing, how often they eat out,” Cummins said. “These are all things that they’ve watched their parents do but they’ve never been allowed to be in that conversation.”

For adults interested in participating in Mad City Money, DeMauro is looking for a few more community volunteers to become the merchants and vendors in the game.
“They’ll be given a table to decorate and take on the persona of the utility company or the barber shop or a real estate agent, it should be fun,” DeMauro said.

Teen participants who complete all Mad City Money stations will be entered into a raffle for a $50 Downtown Ithaca gift card. Refreshments will be provided.
DeMauro is asking people interested in taking part to pre-register, either by email at or by calling (607) 272-4557, ext 274.