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Reality Check/Students learn financial lessons in real-life simulations


In 2004, a year after the personal financial management class became a graduation requirement in the Appleton Area School District, Community First and Appleton school staff collaborated to start Reality Check, a life-like simulation for juniors and seniors to get them prepared for life after college. Today, about 500 Appleton high school students participate in Reality Check each semester. Prior to the Reality Check simulation in the school gym, students research a chosen career field that interests them, determine educational costs for that career and learn about the starting pay to expect so they can have a realistic view of what their future might hold. While still in the classroom, students also learn to use a checkbook and a debit card. Then, each student is assigned a family status – single or married and with or without children.

Hands-on exercise for students

During the simulation, students visit tables staffed by community volunteers where they write checks to pay one month’s expenses for basics such as housing, transportation, food, clothing, utilities, taxes, child care, cellphones, cable TV and computer internet access.  Along the way they learn the importance of balancing a checkbook, saving and investing, donating to charities and spending wisely on lifestyle choices such as going out to eat, shopping, entertainment and health clubs/recreation. If they overspend their monthly budget, they have to choose less expensive options, go to the credit union to withdraw money, get a loan or take on a part-time job to bring in more income.

“Reality Check does a great job teaching tomorrow’s leaders how to live within a budget to cover life’s necessities and other expenses,” said Maureen Hatchell, Fox West YMCA member services director, a Reality Check volunteer.

Supporting classroom lessons

Amy Crum, Appleton East business education teacher, finds real value with the hands on nature of the simulation to support what is being taught in the classroom. Most students tend to underestimate the type of housing and vehicle they can afford based on their income. “Some of the things they are most surprised about is how much things child-related items cost – day care, food, everyday lifestyle and entertainment expenses,” she said.

“The simulation is great for our students and enhances our curriculum,” said Rita O’Brien, career technical education program leader for Appleton schools. “It’s a real world, life experience for them. They can see all the different areas they’re going to have expenditures in, the percentage they should be spending on it (and) how much their income really relates to how much they can or should spend. One of the areas that really surprises them a lot is child care. They just can’t believe how expensive child care is. So the eye opener is wonderful.”

Community First is a proud sponsor and organizer of this practical financial management simulation. Each year about 1,000 high school students from Appleton East, Appleton West, Appleton North, and Fox Valley Lutheran high schools develop important financial skills and knowledge during the simulations that will guide them in the future. To get involved in Reality Check, please contact the Community First marketing department at (920) 830-7200.