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Money Mosh puts real life money lessons in play for Cherokee youth

David Cozzo is sitting behind a table at the Holiday Inn in Cherokee, trying to sell a ’76 Volkswagen to a teenager.

“The maintenance on these is rough, but you’d look good in it,” Cozzo pitched to his potential buyer, 18-year-old Chelsea Cucumber. She wavers slightly, then decides on a different ride, scooping it off the table and handing Cozzo several crisp $100 bills in exchange.

Cucumber didn’t buy a real car, of course. It was a Matchbox car. The money is also fake, printed with the face of Principal Chief Michell Hicks instead of the venerated Ben Franklin. Cozzo isn’t really a car salesman, either.

This is Money Mosh, where high-school seniors in Cherokee can test their financial knowledge before they come into a hunk of cash on their 18th birthday.

While all tribal members get a cut of casino profits, kids have to wait until their 18th birthday, when they get a serious check for years worth of casino payments.

For today’s high school seniors, it will amount to around $110,000.

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To most people, $110,000 is a sizeable sum. To a high-schooler, it’s a nearly unfathomable amount, and developing strategies for what to do with it can be an equally challenging task.

That’s where Money Mosh is here to help. Real-life professionals such as bankers and investors come together with community volunteers like Cozzo and create a microcosm of financial society within a Holiday Inn ballroom and ask these seniors to navigate it.

They must pay taxes, they have to feed themselves, they have to buy housing and a car and at least three items at the ‘mall’ — you’ve got to wear something, right? — and then they have to decide what to do with the rest of it. Should they spend it? Should they save it? Or perhaps invest it?

On this particular night, there are 23 seniors milling about the room, visiting each station with fat stacks of funny money gripped in their hands. They start the night by cashing their checks and getting the fake cash, then they’re supposed to go straight to the tax man, where they get rid of around $28,000 right away.

Then they fill in cards ensuring that they’ve bought everything they should’ve.

Among the seniors — one-fifth of this year’s graduating class — the strategies are different, though most say they’re keen to hold on to a good bit of it.

“I’m trying to think of what I need the most,” says Cucumber, who decided that food, house and then car are the most important things on her list.

Trent Husky’s strategy was everything as cheaply as possible. He even tried to haggle with the real estate table, suggesting that going in on a house with his buddy James would be a better deal for both of them, though that was a no-go with the housing folks.

“I’m going to check out the investments and see how much money I can come out with,” says Husky.

“If you guys want to be real conservative and save as much of your money as you can, go for it. If you want to go wild and spend it all, go wild and spend it all,” says Shawn Spruce, who’s facilitating the night and helps run the Manage Your Money program, which includes the mandatory online financial education that all these seniors will also go through.

The point of this exercise, he says, is not to tell the students what to do with their money, but to give them experience in doing anything with it at all.

The evening is light-hearted and not too laden with financial terms or money management strategies, and that’s the whole point. The event is the brain child of Keith Sneed, who designed the money management course to appeal to teenagers turned off by presentations and brochures.

This is a chance for them to put what they’ve learned from the course into practice, and have a little fun along the way.

Spruce says his hope is that students can make their mistakes tonight, not with their real money that will only be given to them once.

“If somebody wants to go blow their money on a car,” says Spruce, “better that they do it with play money than six months from now at a real car dealership.”

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