High school students get a financial reality check

Milton High School Senior Corey Gunder watches while MHS Senior Tucker Hecimovich tries to see if he can keep the buzz rings whirring for 15 seconds. Part of a Reality Check event held on March 8 at Milton High School, the rings represented skill sets that students would need to apply for part-time work. -- Photo by Rebecca Kanable

Milton and Edgerton high school seniors and accounting class students moved from station to station in the Milton gym last week for an exercise in personal finance. The Reality Check event, in its second year, was held Thursday at Milton High School and alternates between Milton and Edgerton each year.

MHS business education teachers Amy Kenyon and Jen Kligora organized the event with more than 80 volunteers, including community members from local Milton businesses who helped make the real-life budget simulation more realistic.

After a brief orientation, students were given a life status card, checkbook, worksheets and clipboard with a calculator and a pen. Life status cards listed each student's chosen occupation, along with a randomly selected marital status, his or her spouse's occupation (if applicable), and number of dependents and pets. Next, students were given a total monthly income based on a monthly salary, his or her spouse's monthly salary and in some cases, child support payment or child support collection. In addition, students had student loans and credit card debt to pay monthly.

Worksheets helped students understand how all the expenses add up.

Before they started the first reality check worksheet, students had to stop at the tax station and pay their federal, state and social security taxes. Next, they opened a checking account and deposited their money there. Third, they paid their credit card debt. Fourth, they stopped at the real estate station or the apartment rental station to find a place to live. Lastly, at the automotive stations, they purchased a new or used vehicle for themselves and/or their spouses.

Using a second worksheet, students had to pay bills for their cell phone, cable/internet/landline and utilities, auto insurance, renter's insurance, medical insurance, life insurance, apparel, personal and household products, gasoline and groceries.

Not saving was not an option. Students had to save or invest 5 percent of their after-tax income. Investing in entertainment also was not an option. For those with children ages 5 and younger, childcare was required.

Options included pets, dues/memberships, donations/charity, hair/tanning/nails, hunting and fishing licenses.

Participating in the event, EHS Senior Victoria Guir, a graphic designer during the simulation, said, "I learned that life is really expensive."

MHS Junior Kevin Sullivan, said, "It's a good learning experience. I feel like I know how to budget a little bit better."

Sullivan chose to be a business manager for the Reality Check. "His wife" stayed at home with two children. They went on vacation and had to pay a lot of money for food and clothing. To pay for the family expenses, he had to get a part-time job.

Before students could get a part-time job, they stopped to talk to Jeff Messer, a consultant who fosters communication and problem-solving skills.

"Some people say they can just walk in and get a job," Messer said. He turned to tell students, "Before you apply for part-time work, we need to see a demonstration of skills."

Messer demonstrated how to use "buzz rings," one large metal ring with five small rings. The goal was to keep the buzz rings ringing for 15 seconds. The rings represented skill sets that students would need to apply for part-time work.

"It's a part of experiential education," he explained. "Hands-on learning by doing."

Every time the students came back to apply for a different job, they again had to replicate the skill set.

"There are hoops that people have to jump through and skills that they have to have regardless of what their job is whether it's working at Kohl's or Nike or Rock County Dentistry," he said.

He returned to the students: "See how they spin. If you can do this, this represents the skills you need to apply for one of those jobs."

At the S.O.S./Help! station, MHS alumni Max Helbing, a freshman at the University of Wisconsin Whitewater business major, and Mark Gavigan, a UWW sophomore history education major, helped students check their math when they competed each worksheet.

"We haven't had to change much," Helbing said, noting that students, for the most part, had just been a couple cents off.

Gavigan agreed, "The checkbooks have been pretty balanced so far."

By the end of the exercise, students had to have a checkbook balance between zero and $100.

Gavigan said the benefit of the event is in the name - "I think it's a big reality check for a lot of students. There are all these finances that some kids walk through life and aren't aware of - it's going to hit them in the real world."

To mix things up, students had to meet with fate - twice. As a result, they learned they had a cracked windshield and had to pay $250, or they learned that their car needed an oil change and they had to pay $30, for example

A red worksheet informed students that a family member had just died and they were responsible for making funeral arrangements.

MHS Senior Kaylynn Stankus, who was an RN and married to a police officer during the simulation, said she thought she was going to be broke. Instead, she said, "I had all this extra money so I donated it all. I even went on vacations and we had two cars -- and gas was crazy." Stankus, who works two jobs, added she understands she needs to work hard to pay for things.

While videoing other students who were participating in the event, Sullivan found the students felt the event was a good one. "They think it's a really good event and it helps us get prepared for what comes after high school," he said.

Kenyon said, "We have so many students that think, 'I'm going to move out as soon as I turn 18 and it's going to be easy breezy.' They don't understand all the expenses that go into it."

She added that students often don't understand that education correlates to income.

"Some of them are quite shocked at the cost of things and how quickly their money is going," Kligora said, giving child care as an example. "They think they have a very large paycheck. Then they realize money is taken out for taxes. They need to find a place to live. Then because of all the expenses, they realize they don't have near what they thought they had and they still have to buy groceries and gasoline."

Kenyon concludes, "It's important for students to realize -- before they leave high school -- personal finance skills -- just knowing how to have a checkbook, how to pay your bills and money management skills. I think students should know that before they graduate."

Knowing how to determine how much of a car they can actually afford and how credit cards work also is important, Kligora said.

"Living within their means," Kenyon said. "Students don't understand that because they live at home and they think it's all paid for. And it's not realistic sometimes."

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