The Penny Game

Principles & Priorities is an interactive exercise in which participants learn how difficult it is to balance the federal budget. Constituents working in groups of five to ten, review current tax and spending policies, suggest priorities for the future, and apply their personal principles throughout the exercise. 


Stacks of pennies to be used for the Penny Game

What is The Penny Game?

Budget exercise

  • 15-minute activity
  • Appropriate for elementary and middle schools
  • Group exercise for groups of 4-5 people
  • Suitable for any class size

Help your students understand the basics of balancing the federal budget.

Play the Penny Game.

PDF File

Download P&P

Principles and Priorities is a group budget exercise that puts participants in the shoes of members of Congress.


The Concord Coalition's "Principles & Priorities" game is the best way to understand the federal budget

What your group will learn:
  • 1-2 hour immersive course
  • Appropriate for business & community groups
What this packet contains:
  • 1-2 hour immersive course
  • Appropriate for business & community groups

Need help conducting The Penny Game? Ask us!

For advice, or to invite a Concord Coalition field representative to support your group, contact us at


  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 63 white beans and 37 red beans. If using pennies, leave 63 pennies bare and cover 37 pennies with red tape.


When using the Income Boards, each bean/penny represents almost $35 billion or 1% of the 2010 federal government taxes collected and money borrowed. Figures will not be exact due to rounding. There are 63 white beans/pennies and 37 of another color because the government collected 37% less than it spent in FY2010. The income figures are represented as a percentage of outlays. FY2010 income was 63% of outlays, which is another way of saying we had an 37% deficit

Give each team a Penny Bag and an Income Board. Ask teams to distribute the 63 pennies onto the 4 tax squares of the Income Board according to where students think the taxes came from. When completed, give the correct answers as shown on the chart.


When using the Spending Boards, each penny represents 1% or approximately $35 billion of federal spending. See the additional sheet for more details about programs that are included in each category.

Distribute the Spending Boards. Using all 100 pennies, each one representing 1% of the budget or $35 billion, have teams distribute pennies among the 9 spending categories according to where they think the government spent the money in 2010. Give the answers and have them move correct amounts onto the squares so they can visualize the comparisons.


  • 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 (was 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.
  • Actual figures may not add up, precisely, due to rounding.

DEFICIT: The FY2010 deficit was $1,294 trillion. The 63 white beans or bare pennies represent the amount of federal taxes collected and spent in FY2010. The 37 red beans or covered pennies represent an additional amount the federal government borrowed and spent in FY2010.

TIPS: 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.

For current information on budget related issues, visit Concord's website at:


More budget exercises

  • 30-45 minute exploration
  • Appropriate for high school & college classes

Debt Busters

Learn More

  • 1-2 hour immersive exercise 
  • Appropriate for business & community groups

Principles & Priorities

Learn More

  • 15 minute activity 
  • Appropriate as individual activity

Federal Budget Challenge

Learn More