February 7, 2016

The Penny Game

The Penny Game provides a good introduction to the elements and numbers in the federal budget. The activity works well for all ages, especially elementary, middle, and high school students. Here you can download and print the full exercise, including paper Income and Spending Boards.


Players distribute pennies to represent their expectations for how the government raises and spends its money, and compare their expectations to the actual distributions from the previous year. This process provides each player with an understanding of how the country balances its priorities and may reveal some common misconceptions about that balance. 

When using the Income Boards, each bean/penny represents almost $36 billion, which comprises 1% of the 2013 federal government taxes collected and money borrowed. Figures will not be exact due to rounding. There are 80 white beans/pennies and 20 of another color because the government collected 20% less than it spent in FY2013. The income figures are represented as a percentage of outlays. FY2013 income was 80% of outlays, which is another way of saying we had an 20% deficit.

When using the Spending Boards, each penny represents 1% or approximately $36 billion of federal spending.


The FY2013 deficit was $680 billion. The 80 white beans or bare pennies represent the amount of federal taxes collected and spent in FY2013. The 20 red beans or covered pennies represent an additional amount the federal government borrowed and spent in FY2013.


  1. Make copies of Income and Spending Boards using cardstock or colored paper.
  2. Prepare a bag of 100 pennies or beans for each team. Each bag should contain 80 white beans and 20 red beans. If using pennies, leave 80 pennies bare and cover 20 pennies with red tape.


How to Play:

  1. Group players into teams of 4 or 5
  2. Give each team a Penny Bag and an Income Board. 
  3. Ask teams to distribute the 80 pennies onto the 4 tax squares of the Income Board according to where students think the taxes came from. 
  4. When the Income Board is completed, give the correct answers as shown on the chart.
  5. Distribute the Spending Boards.
  6. Ask teams to distribute all 100 pennies (each representing $36 billion) among the 9 spending categories according to where they think the government spent the money in 2013.
  7. Read out the answers and ask each team to move the correct amounts onto the squares so they can visualize the comparisons.



  • Make boards and answer sheets into overheads for use with large groups. Try this game at a meeting or have your students lead it in other classrooms.


Additional Information:

  • Health includes Medicare, Medicaid, safety/health inspections, and veterans health programs.
  • Income Security includes unemployment compensation, housing assistance, food stamps, nutrition programs, general retirement and disability insurance (excluding Social Security), and other income security programs.
  • Education counts all Department of Education outlays; and job training, employment and social services. Keep in mind that most education spending is from the state and local level, not from the federal government.
  • International Affairs (originally called Foreign Aid) includes development and humanitarian assistance, international security assistance, conducting foreign affairs, foreign information and exchange programs, and international financial programs.
  • Other includes homeland security; science, space, and technology; National Institutes of Health; energy; agriculture; commerce and housing credits; health-related research support; postal service; deposit insurance; transportation; community/regional development and disaster relief; veterans benefits and services (except health benefits); justice; and general government.
  • Due to rounding, actual figures may not add up perfectly.