Seventeen-year-old Allison Craigue started the day Tuesday with $1,886 for the month and ended up with $74 left after "paying" for child care, housing and all the other expenses associated with real life.
Craigue, a student at Park View High School, took part in a simulation exercise, where she was given a monthly salary and told she had a five-month-old child.
"You really need to give thought to your purchases, and you need to live within your means," Craigue said. "If you're not making a lot, you can't spend a lot. ... I didn't get thrifty on my clothing and food, but it was low cost. I got simple everything, [and] it was still hard."
Craigue was one of 260 seniors who took part in the Get Real Reality Store, a first-year pilot project at the Sterling Park school. While students in grades 9-11 took their PSAT tests that day, the seniors shopped around in the school's gymnasium.
"We were looking for something special for the students to do. We wanted it to be fun but also educational," said Anne Brooks, school principal.
THE STUDENTS arrived at about 9 a.m. to be randomly assigned to jobs and salary amounts for the three-hour simulation exercise. The salaries ranged from about $15,000 to $60,000, based on the maximum salary a 25-year-old can earn according to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
"These are real jobs that exist in Loudoun County," said Martie Heaton, career center specialist, who helped organize the event with Beverly Samuel, extension agent for the Virginia Cooperative Extension, and Leslie Estrella, financial counseling coordinator, also with the state extension office.
"One of our traditional programs is financial counseling," Samuel said. "We wanted to do something to provide education of high school students to make them aware of wise financial choices before they get to the real world, where there are costly consequences."
The students started the simulation by visiting the Uncle Sam booth, where volunteers deducted taxes from their monthly incomes. From there, the students were required to stop at all the booths to spend their earnings on living expenses and entertainment. They received play money to deposit in savings accounts, to open checking accounts and to spend at the housing, furniture, utilities, grocery, medical/dental, personal care, day care, transportation, entertainment and clothing booths, a total of 25 booths.
"It's a real wake-up call if you have to pay for this. It's not your parents," Brooks said.
SEVENTY VOLUNTEERS worked at the booths to help the students make their financial decisions. The volunteers included parents and members of the Virginia Cooperative Extension and the Loudoun Volunteer Financial Council, sponsors of the event.
"This is not only a reality store, it's a reality check," said Sheri Pittard of the Loudoun Credit Union, who was volunteering at one of the three banking booths. "They have no idea how much it costs to live today."
Take Kristina Dickinson, a 17-year-old assigned as a physical therapist. "You don't realize how much there is to pay."
Jenny Custer, also 17, found out about living on a "lower-income salary," which for her was $30,000 a year as a brick layer. "It really doesn't seem like it's much because I can't buy a house or anything."
"You have to make sure to go to the important stuff first, or you'll be in trouble in the end," said Julie Craner, 17, assigned as an electrician with an annual salary of $35,000.
Administrator Anne Lewis noticed the students had a "good time, but they've really learned from this. They learned how far their parents' money goes too." Lewis is the supervisor of guidance and counseling services.