How To Become A Grown-Up In 1 Day Or Less

BECU’s financial reality fairs teach high schoolers about the challenges of adulthood.

Top-Level Takeaways

  • Each year, BECU holds three or four reality fairs at local high schools aimed at providing an interactive financial learning experience.
  • Common feedback includes: Wow, kids are expensive,’ and Being an adult is a lot harder than I thought.’

Adulting isn’t easy, and BECU ($17.6B, Tukwila, WA) wants kids to know that.

Each year, the credit union sponsors three or four financial reality fairs at area high schools that’s in addition to the credit union’s annual one-day Closing for Good event where it hosts fairs at 12 area high schools for more than 7,000 students. The interactive learning experiences help prepare 11th- and 12th- graders, though middle schoolers and adults do participate as well, for the financial realities of adulthood.

It’s tailored toward budgeting and making critical spending decisions, says Martin Vallen, senior manager of community programs at the Washington credit union.

Virtual Reality

Running a reality fair requires two big-ticket items from BECU: volunteers and a curriculum.

The credit union tries to maintain a participants-to-volunteer ratio of 3-to-1 to 6-to-1 for its fairs, which typically draw in 100 to 150 participants, according to Vallen. ContentMiddleAd

As the credit union looked to achieve greater efficiency, impact, and engagement, BECU was able to connect with the RMJ Foundation in California in early 2017 to license and customize the foundation’s Bite of Reality app. The app allows the credit union to offer a digital version of its reality fair curriculum to participants via smartphone or tablet.

And with greater technology comes the reduced need for volunteers to print and organize paper materials.

There’s not a whole lot of printing that’s required of a fully digitized version, Vallen says. We spent a lot of time printing materials in previous years to run a paper-based fair.

Without increasing pressure to find volunteers, BECU focuses on curriculum where the real learning occurs.

The bones of the reality fair is not unlike other reality programs. BECU assigns participants an avatar that dictates the participant’s job, income, spouse’s income, and number of children. Participants must then calculate their take-home pay and make purchasing decisions what is known in the adulting world as budgeting.

Participants make their way through tables that break down routine expenses, such as housing, transportation, food, clothing, childcare, entertainment, miscellaneous fun items, and personal care. At each of these tables, volunteer sales people try to upsell participants into items they can’t afford.

When participants run into financial trouble, the app locks and forbids additional spending. At this point, participants must visit the credit union table and complete financial counseling before re-entering the fair.

Common feedback we get is, Now I know what my parents go through,’ Vallen says. Another common one is, Being an adult is a lot harder than I thought.’ That alone is valuable for those who participate.

Click the tabs below to view images from the credit union’s reality fairs.


A fair participant shows their total net monthly income on BECU’s customized Bite of Reality app.


BECU staff help facilitate financial reality fairs from behind nine different table stations.


Two participants complete the reality fair at one of BECU’s several partner high schools.

The Real Value Of Reality Fairs

For BECU, the real value behind its reality fairs lies in putting its cooperative values into practice.

This is one of the best examples of our financial institution working with the community, with young people, to instill financial skills and knowledge and expose them to life as an adult so they can be successful in the future, Vallen says.


Data as of 09.30.17

HQ: Tukwila, WA
ASSETS: $17.6B
MEMBERS: 1,064,799
12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 14.6%
ROA: 1.31%

Reality fairs are such a large part of the credit union’s value proposition that the institution hosts 24 reality fairs across 12 different high schools as part of its annual day of service, which takes place every year on Columbus Day. On that holiday, more than 1,800 BECU employees volunteer in the community.

Its an exciting and engaging time for us as employees to be in the community with these students at these schools, Vallen says.

As the fair concludes, BECU asks participants to complete a short survey asking how likely they are to apply what they’ve learned.

Over the course of the 2017 fairs, 88% of participants reported they would use some form of budgeting to manage money because of the fair, and 85% of participants said the experience helped prepare them for the challenges they’ll face as adults.

We’re happy that students are intending to act as a result of what they learn through the experience, Vallen says.

Going forward, BECU plans to double the number of reality fairs it hosts each year up to eight a year, according to Vallen.

And that’s just to start.

Typically, fairs last approximately 90 minutes, with 35 minutes dedicated to orientation and wrap-up. Vallen would like to see the fairs run more efficient than that. He wants to cut orientation and wrap-up time to 15 minutes and find ways to further leverage technology to improve the main content of the fair.

We want to innovate and customize to meet future needs, Vallen says. We continue to learn and adapt.


January 22, 2018

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