Game instills financial literacy among Native youth

Real-world financial responsibilities aren’t exactly fun and games. But a new interactive workshop created at Northern Arizona University uses a game-like environment to show Native American teens how their financial choices can have real consequences.

“Here in Arizona, there are a handful of tribes whose members receive tribal trust funds when they turn 18, or sometimes 21,” said Levi Esquerra, program director for NAU’s Center for American Indian Economic Development. “They can be pretty sizable, and at that age, they might not spend it wisely.”

But the topic of fiscal responsibility—particularly with young people—isn’t necessarily an attention-grabber. So Esquerra invited NAU students from the Native American Business Organization and the Omicron Delta Epsilon economic honor society to help him make a game of it.

“The goal is to teach them that this is a great opportunity, a great gift; spend it wisely,” Esquerra said.

The roots of the project can be traced back to 2011, when Craig Van Slyke was named dean of NAU’s Franke College of Business. With his new university demonstrating a strong commitment to serving Native students, Van Slyke was eager to understand the needs of Arizona tribal communities and how NAU plays a role. As he began meeting with tribes throughout the state, the need for increased financial literacy emerged.

“If you get a check with commas in it and you’re 18 years old, your first impulse is to go out and just blow all that money, right? That’s what I would have done,” Van Slyke said. “So you buy a new car, maybe get your own apartment and the next thing you know, this money that could have been a cushion for you, could have helped provide for your education, could have helped buy your first house when you start a family…it’s gone.”

When the Salt River Pima-Maricopa tribal community requested NAU’s help last summer in bridging this divide, it put into motion the development of a financial literacy program targeting Native youth. In April, Esquerra and his students rolled out the Seven Generation Money Management Game, named for the idea that by reflecting on the past and future three generations, Native teens will remain grounded in their financial decisions as they move forward in life.

The game begins when the players are given a large hypothetical sum of money to spend at different “businesses” around the room, ranging from housing, insurance, colleges and investors, to cars, travel, furniture and electronics. NAU students act as merchants and help the players learn how to make transactions—like signing an apartment lease, opening a bank account or searching for college scholarships—bringing attention to opportunities to save or manage their money based on the choices they make.

“By having college students facilitate these activities, they’re more likely to listen because it’s like having their peers explain their options,” Esquerra said.

Along the way, players are thrown unexpected challenges—a flat tire or a broken refrigerator, for example. “Life happens,” Esquerra said. “They’ll need to figure out how to fix their predicaments with whatever funds they have left.”

Rather than teaching them how and where to spend their money, the game is designed to get them thinking about the real-life scenarios the teens are likely to encounter so they are better prepared for their future financial options.

“My ultimate goal is to help students be successful—not just in the classroom, but in life,” said Van Slyke, who believes teaching Native youth to value financial literacy will contribute to stronger tribal communities.

The center already has facilitated the game for several tribes across the state, with the next game offered Aug. 16 in the Kaibab Paiute community, about 50 miles north of the Grand Canyon. While it was designed with Native teens in mind, it can also serve as an exercise for anyone facing important financial decisions, such as financing a business or developing a family budget.

“Strong financial literacy is a foundation for life,” Esquerra said.