Real Life Academy

Students are fretting and working to make their fake bank accounts balance and to form a realistic monthly budget.

Last week, I had the opportunity to volunteer at a local high school’s “Real Life Academy.”  If you have never heard of this program, you’re about to.  The program was presented for high school seniors, although I think it should be offered at a much younger age, say, junior high. It was hosted by the area chamber of commerce, and is really catching on in the area.  Here is a link to a nearby city’s Real Life Academy program.

Every kid fills out a survey about what they envision their life in the future.  Career, College, Children, Spouse, etc.  They are then given a scenario on paper.  What their annual and monthly household income is, how many children they have, pets, and what their marital situation is.  They are assigned an age around 26-28 years old (approximately 10 years after graduation.)  The paper also includes a monthly budget, which they are in charge of filling out.

Local bankers, government officials, and other business people volunteered their time and knowledge to help the kids select appropriate spending options.

They then are turned loose into the gymnasium where business people from the community have set up booths.  The first booth they stop at is the bank booth, staffed by real local bankers, where they receive a checkbook, debit card, and deposit their monthly paycheck amount (all fake).  They then must make a student loan payment.  Then they go on to the realty booth where they are aided in selecting a housing option.  The business people guide the students, but ultimately they are responsible for the choices they make.

Next comes the auto dealership where the students have to make decisions about what sort of vehicle to drive and payments to make.  Then on to booths like life insurance, health insurance, car insurance, taxes, groceries, cell phone, cable, internet, day care, veterinary, personal and household, convenience store (gas), utilities, memberships, and charity. All staffed by real life people employed in the according business.

Students are fretting and working to make their fake bank accounts balance and to form a realistic monthly budget.

It was my job to sit at the “Fate” table.  Kids picked two different random cards with unexpected expenses or incomes on them.  For example, “You accidentally dyed your hair green, it cost you $60 for a stylist to fix it.” or “Your aunt left you $1000 in her estate.”  This was a fun job, as many of the kids who made it to us were really starting to realize what the “real world” is all about.  Some of them were despairing at how they were going to make it out, and others were sitting pretty.

There was a roaming cop and nurse who could randomly pick kids and assign them different situations.  Often the cop would give kids a DUI, and they would have to go back to the car insurance booth and raise their monthly bill, then on to the government booth to pay their fines.  A good lesson for kids about to head off to college!  The nurse could give them things like unexpected doctor bills or a clean bill of health and lower insurance costs.   The program really seems to cover all the bases when it comes to the sorts of things grown-ups frequently have to deal with.

If “real life” got to be too much, there was the S.O.S. table, where kids could go for advice to figure out their budget.  Sometimes they would have to get short-term loans, or go back and “downsize” their expenses.

Finally, the kids were not allowed to leave until their checkbooks balanced and they had less than $200 (but not less than $0) in their account.  If they had the fortune of having money left over, they had to go back and invest it, or upgrade their vehicle or house, or give to charity, etc.

Spinning the wheel at the charity table to give to causes such as the church, fire departement, or girl scouts.

After going though the academy the kids then sit down with their teachers to analyze their “lives.”  I don’t know much about how much analysis goes on, but I hope that the kids take their experiences home and discuss them with their parents.  I hope that the program makes a lasting, deep impression on the kids that go through it. I think it is really great for them to get to know business people in the community, so that in just a few short months when their lives are more than fake scenarios on paper, they feel comfortable approaching them and asking them questions about their financial situation.

I had volunteered for this program before, and I am somewhat concerned at the lack of life skills some of the students had.  Simple concepts such as balancing a check book, interest and payments, or where to go to make a deposit.  One girl made the comment to me…”$215 per month for me and one kid to eat?  That’s crazy!”  I told her, no, that’s probably on the cheap side.  The day care lady told me that many of them became pale at her table when she told them how much child care would cost them.

This concerns me.  No matter how much we set our children up to succeed intellectually, if we don’t teach them the basic nuts and bolts about getting through life, they are at a disadvantage.  I would like to think that every kid graduating high school would have a good grasp on how to balance an account, form and run a budget, and a clear understanding of loan payments and interest.  To me, this common sense is more important than any advanced placement class.

Not all the kids struggled through the academy, you could tell which ones were familiar with real checking accounts, loans, and paychecks.  Regardless of that, I think the “Real Life Academy” needs to happen in every student’s life sooner than their senior year, and more than once.  I take for granted that I had things like 4-H and FFA to show me how to keep financial records on real-life projects.    You can bet I will be there volunteering and teaching my own kids these values as long as I am able.

If you would like more information on this program, just contact me and I’d be happy to give you the names of the people who put this program on.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Wayne Nieman on November 8, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    Great post. As I was reading this I was already thinking to myself that the students that did the “best” or fhat acted most comfortably were probably in 4-H or FFA.

  2. That sounds like such a fantastic program. Good for you for volunteering for it!

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