Students struggle with financial reality

Published 11:39 pm Friday, August 14, 2009

Abigail Norman did everything right in her life.

She got a good job as a district attorney, making $60,000 a year. She paid her taxes, bought a house and got health insurance. And she did it all in one day, before even entering high school.

Abigail is a rising ninth-grader at King’s Fork High School — one of about 150 who participated in a financial education fair Wednesday presented by Bronco Federal Credit Union. The fair was part of the freshmen’s orientation.

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“The purpose of this is to bring a financial reality to them,” said Melissa Boyce, a marketer at Bronco. “We chose to do freshmen so they don’t quit school, because they found out the importance of money pretty quickly.”

The students, gathered in the school’s theater, were told to imagine they were 25 years old. They were randomly assigned jobs, salaries and children. Jobs ranged from bank teller to bank manager, making amounts from $19,000 to $60,000 a year. The students got to choose whether they were single or married.

The children then were let loose in the school’s gymnasium, where they visited a variety of booths that represented real-world expenses. Leaders told the students they could visit the booths in any order, except for one that had to be first — Uncle Sam.

“You have to pay a lot of taxes,” said Anna Puddei, a computer programmer making $45,000 a year in her ersatz career. “It’s depressing.”

Boyce said she saw the students making good choices, for the most part. She applauded a pair of students for getting “married” to each other so they could split the costs of housing, utilities and child care for their daughter.

There were, however, some students who tried to do some things backward.

“I’ve had a couple that got their hair and nails done, but didn’t have lights,” said Stacey Bradford, a Target employee who helped at the utilities booth. “They realize they’re not able to afford certain things.”

The workshop also helps the students realize the cost of having children.

“It is very expensive to have children,” Ashley Greene, an American Red Cross employee, told Abigail Norman. Greene was working the contributions booth, where students with extra income at the end of the month could donate to their favorite charity.

Abigail chose to “donate” $50 to the American Diabetes Association, and received a piece of candy in exchange.

“If you give, you get,” Greene said.

The high costs of utilities and the expense of medical care shocked many students.

“I was hoping to get insurance,” Abigail said. Even with insurance, she spent more than $400 on medical bills in one month.

“It’s still a lot when you have a spouse and two children,” said Holly Ledbetter, a Bronco Federal Credit Union employee.

Students who were running out of money could visit the supplemental income booth to get a part-time job, or go to the “S.O.S.” booth, where a leader would help them devise ways to save money. Many were advised to sell the house and car they had purchased earlier.

Devon Davis found himself in just that situation. Even though he made $60,000 per year as a computer programmer, he had to move back in with his parents after spending too much money on a three-bedroom house — for just himself — and a Lincoln Navigator.

“I was surprised how much you can be in debt,” Devon said. “This is getting you ready for real life.”