Recently the Rappahannock County High School gym became a microcosm of the adult world of work and responsibilities. In a modern update of the old board game of Life, RCHS 8th graders participated in the Reality Store, a joint venture between RCHS and the Virginia Cooperative Extension Office and its 4-H program. Coordinated by Extension Office representatives Becky Sheffield and Jenny Kapsa, the program immersed students into the world that adults face every day. In the process, students learned valuable life skills and developed decision making processes that will serve them well as they begin to make economic choices in the real world.
Twelve tables were dispersed throughout the gym, all manned by community volunteers, each of whom worked with students individually to determine the most accurate monthly budget amount for their respective expense. Students’ first stop was the Crystal Ball table, where 4-H leader Kapsa gave them their “career” and subsequent monthly income level. From there, they filled in their budget, visiting tables that offered everything from medical and dental insurance to groceries to housing to transportation.
Real life situations were the norm and included aggressive sales pitches by volunteer “car dealer” Rick Lessard as he closed deals on wheels at the transportation table. Requirements to visit the student loan table were mandatory for those who were assigned jobs that required a post high school education, matching the economic reality of young college graduates.
Lifelike choices were offered at every table and allowed students to choose from options ranging from deductibles for health insurance to different levels of service for cell phones to expected payments on credit cards, expenses which up to this point in their lives fell under the category of “mom and dad take care of that.” Students also had help figuring out accurate costs for necessities, such as clothing, child care, utilities and, in keeping with choices offered in the real world, tables were set up for personal services, including items such as hair care, manicures and other individual wants.
Interestingly, the area which drew the largest crowd throughout the day was the supplemental income table. In a testament to their work ethic, many students were seen frequenting this table where they could take second and third jobs, or in some cases even sign up their “spouses” for part-time jobs, to increase their family income and help make ends meet. Quite a few also revisited the transportation table to trade in their initial new car purchase, realizing that the costs of a new car limited their abilities to afford other wants and needs.
Throughout the day many students had that same world-weary look that they no doubt sometimes see on the faces of their parents, trying hard to figure out how to make their dollars stretch as far as possible. The simulation accurately reflected the reality of the temptations that exist in a consumer economy that encourages its citizens to spend money recklessly. But most of the students responded well to the economic pressures, resisting the lure of frivolous expenses and finding ways to balance not only their budgets, but also their basic wants and needs.
By the end of the day, looks of satisfaction and accomplishment replaced the initial frowns of worry as students realized the benefits of smart choices and attention to a budget. Most importantly, our students took away valuable life lessons; financial lessons learned as they stayed within their budgets and community service lessons learned as they interacted with all the Rappahannock County volunteers that helped make this event such a success.