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Michelle Singletary: In case of financial emergency, ride the lion

As part of the financial ministry that my husband and I direct, we conduct a kids-and-money session each year. We ask adult participants to bring in children and young adults to talk about money and play our version of "The Game of Life."
As part of the financial ministry that my husband and I direct, we conduct a kids-and-money session each year. We ask adult participants to bring in children and young adults to talk about money and play our version of "The Game of Life."
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WASHINGTON — My new favorite financial catchphrase is "Ride the lion."

Allow me to explain.

As part of the financial ministry that my husband and I direct at our church, we conduct a kids-and-money session each year around this time. We ask adult participants to bring in children and young adults ages 8 to 21 to talk about money and play our version of "The Game of Life."

We separate the kids into about four groups, and each group is asked to do two things: select a career and choose a city where they want to live.

Predictably, the children often pick jobs they think make a lot of money. They want to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc. Sometimes they choose football player, music producer or star performer.

Most opt to live in large cities. Los Angeles and New York are the top picks every year.

Next, they're given a salary. Then the fun begins.

Want to be a doctor in New York? OK, your salary is $50,000.

Immediately the adults protest — and loudly.

"No, no, doctors make six figures," they argue on behalf of their kids' group.

The average salary for a first-year medical resident is about $51,000, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. Interns can make more or less depending on where they work. But including student loans and other expenses, many doctors struggle financially in the beginning years of their careers.

A similar reaction happens for the other jobs. They aren't expecting to get starting salaries.

Then they are hit with another surprise — taxes. I take their annual salary and divide it by 12, then subtract taxes based on their respective tax bracket. I just do federal. It's enough to make the point.

Be patient, I'm getting to the lion.

Once they get their bottom-line monthly income, my only direction is to develop a budget. I want to see what they know.

"Spend your money," I tell them.

The adults are asked to sit close and just listen to what the kids say. They can't interfere, offer suggestions or answer any questions. They are simply to observe.

And this is where you realize how little most of the children and young adults know about the costs of things. In the most recent session, one group wanted to be a teacher in New York. And they expected to pay $200 a month in rent — with no roommates. One girl thought the water bill would be $300 because they had to also pay for the sink — every month.

One teen, who was becoming stressed by all the expenses, suggested her group give up the smartphone. When it came time to explain their expenditures — I quiz the kids afterward about their budget choices — I asked her to come onstage.

"So you think it's a good idea not to have a cellphone?" I asked.

"Yes, because it costs too much," she said, shaken by the exercise.

OK, I told her. Then I asked her to hand over her phone. Her voice quivered.

"So, um, what am I supposed to do?" she said, clearly ready to have a meltdown at the thought of parting with it.

How would your children do in such an exercise?

Would they know the average cost of rent in the city where they think they want to live? How about the cost of food, cable or transportation? What are they prepared to give up to balance their budget?

To cut expenses, the kids in my sessions begin to get creative. They say they won't eat much. One year, a group decided they would ride a bicycle to work on the freeway — in Los Angeles.

Now about the lion.

One group this year chose to have a dog and budgeted $40 a month for its care. But it was a compromise. One group member, a young boy, said he had wanted to get a lion.

"Why a lion?" I asked.

"Because if our car breaks down, we can ride the lion to work," he said.

Once we stopped laughing, I realized the kid was on point financially. His group had decided to get a used car to save money. An older car might break down. Using his imagination, he had come up with a backup plan.

It was a moment in our kids-and-money session to remember. That little boy got it. By the end, all the kids had.

When it comes to your personal finances, you need to plan for and then budget for emergencies.

Ride the lion.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter at SingletaryM or Facebook at facebook.com/MichelleSingletary.