Balancing Budgets Lesson Plan: The Budget Hero Game

Grade Levels: 6-8, 9-12

In this balancing budgets lesson plan, which is adaptable for grades 9-12, students use BrainPOP resources to explore the principles of balancing budgets, both personal and governmental. Students will attempt to balance the U.S. government budget through online game play, and formulate arguments for an approach to reducing the federal deficit and defend their position during a debate.

Lesson Plan Common Core State Standards Alignments

Students will:

  1. Understand the principles of both personal and government budgets.
  2. Attempt to balance the U.S. government budget through online game play.
  3. Formulate arguments for an approach to reducing the federal deficit and defend their position during a debate.



spending; fiscal policy; debt; surplus; trade-off; revenue; budget; taxation, bonds; recession; inflation


In light of the budget crisis, the Woodrow Wilson Center, American Public Media and 360KID have developed Budget Hero, an online game in which players try their best to balance the federal budget. Players can make policy changes by playing a variety of policy cards. The results of these changes are reflected by the budget deficit/surplus, the size of government as a percentage of GDP, the national debt as a percentage of GDP, and the projected year in which the budget “busts.” Players can choose up to three badges that reflect their budget priorities, such as defense, health and wellness, green initiatives, or several others. Players experiment with government investments and budget cuts and then compare their results to others’.

One important note before you play: The game was created using data from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, or CBO, which works with Congress to track the federal budget and to predict the impact of proposed federal policies. The CBO's "baseline" follows current law, under which tax cuts enacted under President Bush in 2001 and 2003 will expire in 2012. But politically speaking, that's highly unlikely. If you want students to play the game like politicians will, select the "Extend 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts" and "Link AMT to inflation" cards under Taxes, and go from there.

Portions of this summary and lesson plan have been adapted from the Government Borrowing Lesson: Be a Budget Hero lesson plan by American Public Media. Other detailed lesson plans for Budget Hero can be found at

A special election edition of Budget Hero is now available to illuminate the budget impact of policies championed by President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney as well as those related to the impending “fiscal cliff.” The updated version contains 27 new policies in all, including the Ryan Medicare and Medicaid Plans; Taxing Sugar-Sweetened Beverages; and Changing Distribution of Social Security Benefits.

Lesson Procedure:

  1. Introduce students to the concept of a personal budget by showing the Budgets movie. Project the Activity for the class to see, and fill it out together. Have students use the Graphic Organizer to reflect on their own income and expenses.
  2. Once students are familiarized with budgeting, pull up the Budget Hero game and click "Get Briefed" to explain the concept of a federal budget and the basics of game play. Talk about key vocabulary, including budget deficit and trade-off, and the other terms listed below. Talk with students about how governments use taxation to cover their budgetary obligations and borrow through bonds as needed. Also discuss the pros and cons of deficit spending.
  3. Click "Play Game." A card will pop up: go through it with the students because it confronts them with an important choice. Afterward, continue to the badges, which represent the objective students will pursue. Double clicking on any badge will explain what it means. Students can play from perspectives they care about, such as trying to improve the environment, health care, national security or competitiveness. They also have an opportunity to play the Congressional Super-committee or the Tea Party. Model how to select badges that represent values that are important to you.
  4. After students pick their badges, they enter the game and see the federal budget displayed as a skyline, where the height of the buildings represents the size of the budget. Show students how to make budget choices by clicking on the buildings that represent the different budget categories. There you will see specific choice cards. Drag the cards you would like to choose that represent new spending or spending cuts over to the "Played Cards" column.
  5. Tell students they will have the chance to play Budget Hero in pairs first and then later individually. Provide 25-30 minutes of time for partner game play.
  6. Have students reflect on the questions from the Government Borrowing Handout. You may want to have them write their answers to some (or all) of the questions in pairs, or talk about it as a whole class. You can also use this handout to assess student learning and debrief on game play.
  7. Use the game as a stimulus for a class debate on federal, state, and local budgets. What are the best policies for spending? Taxation? How should our government approach the federal debt? Have students refer to principles they experienced during game play and refer to them when defending their position.
  8. Allow students time to explore the game on their own later in your financial literacy unit. Students can also access the game at home. You may want to have students research the values their state congress person represents, and play against those values in the game to see how the budget challenges could be approached differently. Or, encourage students to accomplish specific goals in the Role Playing Exercises.

Extension Activity:

Have students download and print the Budget Hero Policy Cards and create their own version of the game offline. Your class can also upload their experiences with the game (and new ideas of how to play it) to a Google map of the U.S. at

You can also explore the other topics in BrainPOP's Economics unit. You might also want to utilize our other Social Studies Games which simulate other aspects of running the federal government.