Jul 23, 2015

Looking for A Great Hands-On Budgeting Activity….

 Updated (11/23/2021): We have added the Bean Game described below to our revamped Semester Course. You can also run the Bean Game virtually!



I think of this no-tech, kinesthetic Bean Game activity as “Ol Reliable” when it comes to my six-week summer program I have taught at Eastside Prep. for the past five years. Each year this game has been one of my students’ favorite activities.  Here’s a sampling of feedback from students when I asked what they liked best about the class this year:

  • “The activities we did in class like the bean game because it helped me better understand what budgeting would be like in the future.”
  • “I loved the real life examples we did like the bean game.”
  • “What I liked most about the class was participating in the bean game where we use beans as money for our needs such as phone payment, buying a car and living in our own apartment.”

The game has a very simple set-up:

  • Students use a game board (first two pages of the activity) that lists cost categories and the cost of each of them (in beans). Or you can use our new VIRTUAL BEAN MAP instead. 
  • Each student receives 20 beans which represents their income and which they can spend on the items listed on their game board.  Any cost category that has a STAR next to it is a required item.
    • Be sure that your beans are relatively small and fit into one square on the game board.  I once made the mistake of buying beans that were too large.
  • The instructions suggest creating groups of 2-5 students. I like having students work individually so that the choices they make are THEIR choices. If you want students to understand the challenges of making joint spending decisions (as with a significant other), pairing in groups of 2 should do the trick.

Once students have completed placing their beans on their game boards, I have them pair-share with a student sitting next to them (you don’t want them moving their game boards or beans will likely fall off).  The students then are asked to reflect on the following questions:

  • What was the process they went through in placing your beans?
    • Leads to good discussions about needs vs. wants.
    • Opportunity to talk about the importance of “Saving First” or making decisions about savings first and then use what is left over to spend.
  • What was easy or difficult about the process?
    • Expect to hear lots of groans during the game play as students are forced to deal with finite resources.
  • What tradeoffs did they have to make?
    • A fundamental concept of budgeting; ask students to provide specific examples of the more difficult choices they had to make.
  • Look at the three-four categories where they are spending most of your beans. Do these choices reflect their values?
  •  Did any of them change their mind after consulting with their neighbor?
    • Opportunity to discuss the importance of peer group in spending decisions.  Did they increase/decrease spending on an item based on your pair-share discussion?
  • Did any of these categories surprise them in terms of cost?
    • Students are often surprised about car costs, including the cost of insurance.

Now for the surprise…notify the students that their income has been reduced at their workplace and their income drops to 13 beans…ask them to take 7 beans off the board.  As you might guess, students are not happy with this news!

  • What cost categories did they reduce to get down to 13 beans?
    • This provides them with insights on their needs vs. wants.  At 13 beans, they probably have a pretty good idea of what their needs are.
    • Many will choose to drop insurance; be sure they understand the risks with such a strategy.
  • See if any students who had new cars or were renting apartments made decisions to downsize…
    • Let them know that fixed expenses like auto loan payments and apartment rent payments are not easily reduced. The value of the car may be less than the amount you owe on the loan (good chance to talk about autos as depreciating asset).  For an apartment lease, you make a commitment to stay for a year or more so will still be on the hook for rent if you decide to walk away.
  • For those who had saved previously, ask if they found it easier since they could now use their savings to spend with the expectation that they would start saving again after their salary returned to normal levels.

I usually close class with the question about lessons learned from the Bean Game.  Here’s a sampling of the concepts covered:

  • Needs vs. Wants
  • Managing money with resource constraints
  • “Saving First” concept
  • “Stickiness” of fixed costs like car loan payments and apartment rentals
  • Spending decisions vs. values
  • How much it costs to live
  • Concept of budgeting or having a plan on how to spend vs. just spending
  • Peer group influence on spending decisions
  • Concept of insurance and paying a premium up front to cover any unexpected losses

As you can see, this one activity provides students with a great conceptual understanding of budgeting and as such has been a great starter lesson before turning to more “real-life” budgeting that replaces beans with $s.  Enjoy!


Looking for a few more activities to engage your students as they envision their life in the “real world”?


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About the Author

Tim Ranzetta

Tim's saving habits started at seven when a neighbor with a broken hip gave him a dog walking job. Her recovery, which took almost a year, resulted in Tim getting to know the bank tellers quite well (and accumulating a savings account balance of over $300!). His recent entrepreneurial adventures have included driving a shredding truck, analyzing executive compensation packages for Fortune 500 companies and helping families make better college financing decisions. After volunteering in 2010 to create and teach a personal finance program at Eastside College Prep in East Palo Alto, Tim saw firsthand the impact of an engaging and activity-based curriculum, which inspired him to start a new non-profit, Next Gen Personal Finance.

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