A high school gym full of tables with titles like “Furniture,” “Housing,” “Chance” and “Child Care” provide a peek into the future for seniors at Broad Run High School last week.
The students participated in a “Reality Store” sponsored by the Virginia Cooperative Extension to teach students about the costs of living on their own.
Careers, income, family size and marriage status were randomly assigned to the students, who then had to go around to each of the tables to purchase necessities from housing and groceries to utilities and clothing, after a visit to “Uncle Sam” to pay taxes first.
The tables, staffed by volunteers from the community, provided different plans for purchasing items based on salary ranges.
“We try to point them in the right direction but we don’t force them into any decisions,” said Barbara Buxton, sitting at the clothing table. Slips of paper were available with the cost of buying clothes for a single person, or someone with one or two children, with the option of thrifty, low, medium or high cost selections.
“Sometimes they overspend and don’t have money left for utilities or housing,” Buxton said, “so they’ll have to get a second job or take money out of the bank.”
“It’s reality,” she said. “Some will come in and say ‘Wow, I make $14,000 a year,’ and they think they’re rich. They don’t realize how money works.”
Joan and Raymond Ehrenbeck worked one of three tax booths, the students’ first stop of the morning.
“We see some kids who are very surprised and shocked by how much money goes to taxes, but we do see some humorous reactions,” Joan Ehrenbeck said. “Last year, two students came up and asked if they could be married because they thought it would be cheaper for them.”
“Things were much different when I was in high school,” Raymond Ehrenbeck said. “I think all students need this sort of program.”
“It educates them before they get out into the world and how expensive it is to live,” Joan Ehrenbeck said.
THE STUDENTS SEEMED to be learning hard life lessons in a safe environment.
“This is great, really educational,” said Erik Louderback, assigned a career as an executive assistant making $32,000 a year.
“I’m very surprised, I didn’t know how much everything costs,” he said. As a father of two, the cost of childcare was the most surprising expense.
“It’s hard to live on my own, I need to have insurance, food, clothes, a car and housing, so I’m trying to get roommates,” he said. “I’m glad we’re doing this in high school so we can really learn.”
Megan Roche was assigned a job as a dishwasher, making $14,000 a year.
“I have to live in a homeless shelter because I can’t afford an apartment,” she said.
She had enough money to buy food but couldn’t get much else.
“I would expect this for a dishwasher,” she said of her struggles. “This shows that you have to go to college to get a good life.” Luckily, Roche was already planning on college.
Kacey Trexler and Corey Ennist were trying to get an apartment together in order to share expenses.
“I make half as much as he does so it’s hard to find an apartment we could both afford,” Trexler said. She had a career as a teaching assistant, making $18,000 a year.
“We’re trying to share as many expenses as we can,” Ennist said. “I have two kids to take care of,” he said. His job was as an electrician, making $35,000 a year and hadn’t looked into the cost of childcare yet.
They weren’t too surprised at the cost of living, which was based on Loudoun County information.
“I wasn’t expecting to find lower-cost housing,” Trexler said.
“Yeah, and utilities are pretty cheap,” Ennis said.
THE MORNING concluded with a debriefing from Wendall T. Fisher, executive director of the YMCA in Loudoun County.
He was disappointed that only about half of the school’s seniors participated in the Reality Store Wednesday.
“Some were taking the PSAT’s, others chose to skip school today,” he said. “They’ll be missing this opportunity for the rest of their lives and these are things you cannot miss.”
Fisher said those students that did participate “will take from this event information they can use in the future.”
“This program prepares you for life,” Fisher said. “If you’re not prepared, something’s wrong.”
Being prepared means learning self-control and the difference between wants and needs, he said.
“You don’t need a plasma TV, no matter how much you want one,” he said. “You don’t need a new car, you need reliable transportation you can afford.”
Special Education teacher Laura Breese made sure to stop by the Reality Store to see what she could take back to her classes.
“I think it’s a wonderful idea,” she said. “It’s good to let kids know what real life expenses are and where money goes.”
She said when she was in high school her parents were open about finances and expenses, something she’s continued with her own children.
“So many kids don’t have a concept of money,” she said. “They go to college and get inundated with credit card information and get themselves into trouble.”
“If they don’t pay attention now, they might get it later,” Breese said.
Debra Foster coordinated the activities for the Virginia Cooperative Extension.
“This does give a true taste of what’s to come. It gets through to them, you can hear it in the comments they make during the morning,” she said.
“In the morning, they’re ambivalent and not sure of what their supposed to be doing, but they take ownership of the life they’re given for this project,” she said.
“It’s better for them to make mistakes here than in the real world, but if they do make mistakes later, they’ll know what services are out there to help them,” Foster said.