POWHATAN – “I’m going to be broke,” the young man intoned, looking at the list of health insurance premiums needed to cover him and his family.
Ramona Carter, the volunteer who was running the medical insurance table, just smiled in commiseration and nodded.
Before long, the young man could be seen at another table, seeking a second job to help pay his bills.
This is reality, and it isn’t always pretty. But educators at Powhatan High School are hoping this glimpse into real life – otherwise known as the Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Reality Store program – will help students become more aware of the challenges they will face when they are required to become completely self-sufficient, said Jane Henderson, family and consumer sciences agent.
The school partnered with the local Cooperative Extension on Monday, Oct. 7 to put on the Reality Store, which saw about 300 students in the Economics and Personal Finance classes to go through the exercise.
“The Reality Store is a financial simulation that teaches children about living on their own within the community,” Henderson said.
At the beginning of their class period, each student came to PHS auxiliary gym and was given a piece of paper with certain parameters – a career, it’s salary, marital status, number of children, and take home pay after taxes, Henderson said.
There were chemical engineers, waiters/waitresses, lawyers, geological technicians, cooks, aircraft manufacturers, and dropouts. Some were married and some single. Some had no children and some as many as three. Some had to factor in student loans from college.
“The reason behind this is because people decide to go to college and their salaries and their education levels will be different. Where they live is going to be different. We added in the differences if you are going to school to make it more realistic, because not every student is going to be attending a college and not every student realizes the importance of staying in school. This is to help them make better choices,” Henderson said.
With profiles in hand, students had to visit tables set up throughout the room that would chip away at that take-home pay amount as they chose a place to live, what car to drive, what kind of medical insurance to buy, groceries, child care, utilities, clothing, and more, said Hilary Parr, a business teacher at the school. There was even a chance table where students drew cards that could either hurt or help their finances – they won $25 on a lottery ticket or had a car accident that came with a $1,000 repair bill.
“The hope is that they get a little piece of the reality so they can see how much it really costs to be an adult – how much housing costs and utilities. So when we go back into the classroom and start talking about these items individually, they have had an experience of seeing in a big picture as an adult how much it is going to cost them to live in a month,” Parr said.
Economics and Personal Finance, which is a state-mandated class for graduation, covers all the basics of personal finance – insurance, budgeting, retirement, taxes, income, careers, life after high school, and the basics of economics, Parr said. Seeing the reality of how all of those things impact you on a very personal level was good groundwork for the lessons to come.
Senior Carter Warren said she honestly didn’t know what to expect when she received her sheet assigning her as a computer programmer with a 6-month-old daughter and a spouse who doesn’t work. She was pleased with how she did, ending up with several hundred dollars left over at the end of the exercise.
Some of the things that surprised her included the difference in prices when choosing between generic and name brand groceries and clothing and having to decide on housing based on having a young daughter. Then there were the communications costs – “that stuff is expensive,” she said.
The hardest part was “definitely how quick everything adds up. Since we are teenagers and don’t have to pay for anything, you don’t realize how much your parents are paying for everything. It puts things in perspective,” Warren said.
Addison McCullough, a sophomore, was assigned the career of instrument distributor and given a wife and two children in his scenario. He was floored at his grocery bill, which was about $600, and was one of the contributing factors that caused him to take a second job in his scenario.
“I was expecting not to be $365 in debt, but it turns out I was. I didn’t think groceries were going to be that much,” he said, adding he now understands the significance when he is choosing between the name brand and generic cereal.
Tony Hackenberg, one of the volunteers, said he has helped out at the Reality Store simulation when it used to be done with middle schoolers. He felt like it had more of an impact on high schoolers since that is a closer reality for them.
Hackenburg laughed as he talked about the students’ reactions to the cost of child care, ranging from “I can’t afford this” to “I have too many kids” to “I’m glad I don’t have any kids.”
“It makes them aware of what the true cost is of setting up a family unit. For the most part I think it is realistic and the fact is that most of them have never done a budget. They go through all these stations, and in many cases they are going to end up negative and have to go back through and say how can I adjust this so my expenses are not greater than my budget.”
Henderson said she loves when the students participating in the Reality Store have those “ah hah” moments about how things work or how important something is that they never even think about – such as insurance or the cost of groceries.
“Most of the time the volunteers have an opportunity to help guide the students to make good choices, but it is up to the student to make the final decision on their budget,” she said.
Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.