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Financial education ice breaker: finding a good conversation starter

Financial education, boring classes and ice breakers

Both students and teachers know that it’s often hard to make money and finances interesting. And financial education classes suffer from low turnout or enrollment. Even when participants show up,  they often come away thinking that the material was boring or at least not fun.

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Of course it’s hard to make money fun and engaging. People find it hard to talk about money; it’s a true challenge to find fun ways to talk about finances – and to find ways that are also non-threatening. Conversation starter ice breakers are a key component of successful financial ed classes.
One of the reasons that financial education (or financial literacy, financial capability) classes are not fun is that they tend to jump right to hard skills like “How to do a budget” or “How to get out of debt.” But filling out budgeting worksheets and spreadsheets is not fun and makes for a dysfunctional icebreaker or introduction. It’s an immediate turnoff for students. Doing a budget feels like a test. And it can be very frustrating for a variety of reasons:

  1. budget testPeople often don’t have a good idea when it comes to, “How much I spend?” Many cash purchases get lost and are not tracked. Even credit card and debit card bills don’t necessarily show you what you actually bought at the store: So you spent $54.97 at the grocery store – what items did you buy and did you really need them? It’s important to understand why you spent what you did — as well as when and with whom.
  2. Many people still wonder “What is a budget?” so it means starting from scratch, which is slow and tedious for a teacher.
  3. And then there’s a feeling of being judged: a fear that the facilitator or teacher will tell you that you’re not managing your money right or making bad choices with your spending plan.
  4. It’s especially hard and uncomfortable to, as a conversation starter, ask a class of strangers, “How much money do you make?” which is often how budgets can be seen.

That’s not to say that a financial education curriculum should ignore budgets. Instead, consider how diving right into the meat of financial education misses the behavioral or psychological aspect of how to start working with people with money and providing the financial help they need.

How to start a conversation about money?

Certainly there are other icebreakers and games that can be used in financial education, but Money Habitudes is used for a variety of reasons with great success with a number of different audiences (from asset building to financial planning to HUD housing counseling). Why?

  • They’re easy to teach, easy to use and easy to interpret.
  • They’re interactive, hands-on and fun. Like a game, they make for a good alternative to lectures, worksheets, and PowerPoint. They kick off a workshop and make for a fun class.
  • Make workshops or classes related to the sensitive topic of money less threatening and more enjoyable.
  • Appeal to different learning styles – and work across the age, income and education spectrum because of simple statements, wording and basic concepts with broad implications. High income and high education and low income and low education groups both use the tool.
  • Get beyond budgets to begin important conversations about the interaction between lifestyle, values and finances.
  • Can be reused and work in a variety of programs.
  • Work with men and women.
  • Can be used in adult classes and classes for teens and young adults. (Available in Spanish too.)

As an ice-breaker, Money Habitudes usually takes 15 minutes or so. (Financial educators say that the extra few minutes at the beginning of a workshop pay dividends later, even if less skills-based material is ultimately covered.) Ideally, each participant will have his or her own deck of cards to do the activity that feels like a card game. (Those materials can be reused.) By simply using the statements cards as conversation starter questions, it can be a quick icebreaker activity, although less powerful than doing the full sorting assessment process. (Each statement, Habitude interpretation card, and special discussion card can be viable conversation topics.) After developing a better understanding of their money personality or financial personality type, people enjoy later group activities and exercises more. In addition, later lessons (such as budgeting) tend to have more personal relevance. People also relax more when starting a difficult topic like money management with something fun and interesting that feels like a game.
Generally used as an individual activity, Money Habitudes can also be used as a group exercise and be used in team exercises. Generally, this is done by financial advisors or financial educators in a team building or sensitivity training context as opposed to with end-user clients or students.
Of course, Money Habitudes cards can be much more than an icebreaker and can be used in counseling and in classes that typically last for 30-90 minutes. It can also be paired or integrated with other curricula and programs such as those on investing, relationship communication skills, etc. (This might be programs like the FDIC’s Money Smart, Dave Ramsey Financial Peace University, or PREP.)