Students Get “Reality Check” Learning about real-life challengesv

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By Pam Reinig

Register Editor


Central senior Aaron Hoth recently had a very, very bad day: A divorced dad with a young child, he was forced to take a part-time job to cover unplanned medical expenses accrued when his son fell off a bike and broke his leg. Hoth has a steady job as a master technician with a monthly income of $3,200 and he also receives monthly child support payments. He pays a mortgage on a three-bedroom, one-bathroom house, spends $260 a month on childcare and $300 monthly on gas for an aging vehicle. A laundry list of expenses like food, utilities and insurance consumed his disposable income forcing him to seek public assistance—twice.

Lucky for Hoth, these circumstances were only part of simulation designed to expose students to the real-life situations and the decision-making that goes into dealing with them.

Central High School students and teens from eight other schools spent a recent Wednesday morning at a Reality Check program held in Prairie du Chien. It was the fourth time Central students had participated; Prairie du Chien High School has hosted the program for several years. The half-day event gives students insight into the financial pressures associated with living costs. It also teaches them about juggling responsibilities like housing to childrearing. 

Central teacher Debbie Walz, who attended a series of regular meetings prior to the event, led the local effort. She prepared students by showing them a video of the Reality Check program and also assisted them in selecting careers. Students were encouraged to choose careers that align with their expected post-secondary plans. After a job was chosen, Walz showed them how to find their expected monthly income in an online database.

“We have another student meeting before the event,” Walz said. “Students are given their life scenario (marital status, number and ages of family members and so on) and we remind them to dress professionally. We also talk about the logistics of the day.”

Following an orientation, students worked their way through nine different stops. They began at a banking booth, where they “deposited” their net monthly paychecks. Other booths provided information and options on insurance, credit cards, investments, utilities and miscellaneous expenses. Set expenses (like utilities) had to be paid immediately using checks and debit cards provided by sponsors. (Checks and debit cards were for instructional use only; they had no value.) 

The booths were staffed with professionals from targeted businesses. For example, FreedomBank, Elkader, sent two employees to work at the banking booth and Danielle Shea of Northwestern Mutual worked an insurance booth. Other Elkader sponsors were Fitzgerald, Inc., Caterpillar, and Gifford Insurance.

There was flexibility in some areas like housing and transportation. Students could avoid needing a second job or seeking public assistance if they made wise choices. For example, Central senior Rachel Berg, who had a monthly take-home pay of nearly $4,000 from her job as a nurse, economized by renting a small apartment.

“I wasn’t aware how much necessities like utilities, groceries and insurance cost,” she said. “The simulation gave me a good idea of what to expect.”

Senior Jeran Cook thought his monthly net income of $3,300 would be plenty. He was single, no kids and rented a small house. Unlike Hoth, Cook didn’t hit any bumps in the road. Still, he admitted that budgeting was hard though a personal finance class taken earlier at Central helped.

“How much a kid costs was a big shock to me,” said Hoth, who seemed to have encountered more difficulties than many of his fellow students. “It was amazing how fast your money goes, and really amazing how you have to go without a lot of fun things just to buy what you need.”

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