Students serve as an Economic Advisor to the President, who must increase military spending out of political necessity, but needs to reduce spending in other programs to limit the deficit. Conflicting goals create a need for compromise and tradeoffs to create a national budget, while trying to remain under deficit limits.


Budget, Government Expenditures, Trade-off


  • Identify the major spending categories for the federal government.
  • Identify how changes in federal spending affect budget deficits.
  • Recognize the tradeoffs involved in spending on government programs.


In this lesson students serve as an Economic Advisor to the President, who must increase military spending out of political necessity, but needs also to reduce spending in other programs to limit the deficit. Conflicting goals create a need for compromise and tradeoffs to create a national budget, while trying to remain under deficit limits.

The new President of the United States has been elected on the promise of fiscal responsibility. He has promised the voters he will not raise taxes, and he will not reduce Social Security or Medicare. He has promised interest groups that he will not reduce Commerce Department spending. By law he cannot reduce the net interest paid on the debt. The President's budget is projected to leave the country with a balanced budget, and he promises not to allow a deficit, unless the U.S. faces a recession or war.

militarySuddenly, the United States is subject to military attack -- a turn of events not anticipated in the current budget. At the same time, a lingering recession reduces the government's tax revenues and forces the government to increase its spending on unemployment benefits, welfare, housing assistance, food stamps, and other need-based programs. Because of the increased spending and reduced revenues, the nation falls into a projected deficit of $1090 billion.

Then Congress passes legislation to increase military spending by 20 percent, to pay for increased security within the U.S. and to pay for a prolonged military response against the attacking country and other potential threats. The President signs this bill into law, increasing the projected deficit to more than $1225 billion.

The President is committed to keeping his campaign promises, in order to maintain support for his reelection. He must protect the programs he promised to protect, and he cannot raise taxes, so he must cut spending on other programs to stay within his new guideline to keep the deficit below $1130 billion. The President turns to you, his trusted economic advisor, for help. (Note: While some events in this scenario reflect actual events, others are hypothetical for the purposes of this exercise. Budget figures are actual White House figures of 2012, including spending and revenues of 2012  ).



  1. Follow this link to the CEE National Budget Simulation.
  2. To represent the 20 percent increase in military spending, the spending levels have automatically been changed. You can see how this affects the total spending at the bottom of the column.
  3. Scroll to the bottom of the page to see the effect of the increase in military spending on the "New Surplus" or "New Deficit" (a negative surplus is a deficit). Remember that you need to get this figure below $1130 billion. Make note of the relative amounts of the budget spent on each area listed in the table, so that you can decide where cuts might be effective to reduce the deficit.
  4. Now begin cutting the program budgets as a tradeoff for the increased defense spending. Remember, for political reasons or by law, you cannot make any changes in these areas: Commerce and housing credit, Medicare, Social Security, Net interest, Allowances, and Undistributed offsetting receipts. You can click on the names of the spending areas to see the programs in the respective spending areas.
  5. Keep cutting programs until you have reached your $1130 billion deficit limit. Hint: You will have to cut most programs by at least 7.5 percent to reach your target. When cutting programs, keep in mind that program cuts could seriously affect citizens’ daily lives. Also keep in mind people who may be so angered by program cuts that they will take action to prevent the President’s reelection.

[NOTE: Some students will be tempted to quickly reach deficit limits by making extreme cuts or even eliminating entire programs. Encourage such students to consider the real-life ramifications of such cuts, and explain that even 7.5 percent cuts in many programs will have serious consequences.]


Students can be asked to write an explanation of the decisions they made and the justifications for those decisions. If several students have individually completed the activity, the class can discuss the decisions and justifications. Also have them hand in the printout of the "Your New Budget" page as a way to assess their decision-making skills in this activity.


When the student(s) have reached their target have them print out their results. Have the students consider which programs they have cut, to help them answer the reflection questions on the Worksheet. When they are finished with the lesson, hand in the paper that you printed along with this worksheet.


  • “This was a good activity that kept my senior students focused for almost a full 25 minutes - wow!”

    Ned C., Overland Park, KS   POSTED ON April 1, 2004

  • “This is a good activity for students to learn more about budgeting.”

    Kevin, Richfield, WI   POSTED ON April 27, 2004

  • “After using this lesson in class my students now fully understand the budget and why it's so important for us to balance it.”

    Zach M., IN   POSTED ON November 30, 2004

  • “Excellent lesson! I used it to discuss scarcity and opportunity costs with my class.”

    Jennifer H., Cambria, CA   POSTED ON January 4, 2005

  • “I had difficulties completing this lesson. My students were more focused on reaching the budget goal and not of the ramifications of their actions. Maturity level of the students participating needs to be a factor in this lesson. It was a good lesson; I was very excited about it, but my students just were not ready for it.”

    Eric Byrd, Kissimmee, FL   POSTED ON February 21, 2005

  • “One issue I deal with in economics is that the students believe that reaching a balanced budget will be a snap. When they actually have to choose which programs to cut and must explore the ramifications and defend their choices, they really seem to start 'getting it!'”

    Sharon, Cobb County, GA   POSTED ON February 3, 2007

  • “Absolutely amazing!”

    Erin Decker, Naperville, IL   POSTED ON October 31, 2007

  • “Students didn't focus on the ramifications of their actions, but I think they enjoyed it a lot!”

    Nancy, NM   POSTED ON May 30, 2008

  • “Good exercise but very difficult.”

    Deneya M., PA   POSTED ON October 16, 2008

  • “I am a student, and i really enjoyed this exercise. I don't think enough kids my age understand the kind of money that gets used by our government. I only wish that everything could be changed, such as Social Security, National Defense, and some of the other large and controversial programs.”

    Kevin R, Hilton, NY   POSTED ON October 20, 2009


    Stephanie M., arlington, VA   POSTED ON January 8, 2010

  • “PLEASE HELP!! I have used this lesson for several years now, but something has gone wrong with the interface. The budge work page with the dropdowns is flickering and I can't see it clearly. EconEdLink: It should be working now. Thanks for letting us know!”

    Leah V., Hudson, MA   POSTED ON October 4, 2010

  • “I've enjoyed what I could do of this assignment and learned a lot however the budget calculator is flickering and will not load right so I was unable to finish it. EconEdLink: It should be working now. Thank you for your comment.”

    Danielle T., Buhl, ID   POSTED ON February 14, 2011

  • “how do you know once you've reached 450 billion?”

    Adam Z., San Benito, TX   POSTED ON April 24, 2014

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