Reality Check lessons guide students to future success

Reality check partnership fall 2022“If I knew then what I know now.”
It’s a sentiment shared by many adults who’ve learned life’s lessons the hard way. Lessons, for example, like how to manage money.
Luckily, Appleton area high school students will enter adulthood with an upper hand, thanks to a partnership between the Appleton Area School District (AASD) and Community First Credit Union (CFCU).

Hands-On Learning

As part of the state graduation-mandated Economics or Personal Financial Management class, students spend a semester learning how to manage expenses, understand credit, evaluate financial risk, and stretch their income. Then, armed with a monthly salary (based on the career of their choosing), a randomly assigned family situation, and a debit card, they apply what they’ve learned at Reality Check, a financial literacy simulation held twice each school year at the three public high schools in Appleton.
Male-and-Female-Student-at-Table-During-Reality-Check-Event-with-Sign.jpgHosted with the help of local professionals and community members serving as volunteers, the event takes students through a series of 15 stations where they’re presented with financial choices about everything from housing and transportation to health care and investments. It’s up to them to determine which options make the most sense for their budget, balancing their checking account register (tracking debit card transactions) along the way.
“In a year or two, they’re going to be out in the real world, and they’re going to have to pay these bills, so it’s giving them that hands-on experience,” said Stefanie Fude, Personal Finance Management teacher at Appleton East High School. “It’s a great way to connect with the community as well.”
Students also have access to an S.O.S. station where they can receive financial counseling if they run out of money, as well as a “fate” station where spinning the wheel could result in some extra cash (i.e., earning a bonus at work or having a successful rummage sale) or an unexpected expense (i.e., needing to call a tow truck or suffering an injury). There’s even an “officer” on patrol handing out tickets for loitering or jaywalking, and sending the student to city hall to pay their fine.  

A Lasting Impact

“Reality Check has been a long-standing partnership with Community First Credit Union,” said Kristin Comerford, AASD Coordinator of Career-Based Learning and Career and Technical Education. “It has been happening since 2004, which means we have made an impact in many students’ lives. Our partnership continues to grow in ensuring our students are prepared for college, career and life.”
Paper-Checking-Account-Register-with-Hand-Pencil-and-Calculator-at-Reality-Check-Event.pngThis fall semester, over 550 students from Fox Valley Lutheran, as well as Appleton North, West and East high schools, participated in Reality Check. The spring semester simulations are scheduled for April 2023. After completing the program, students consistently reported that their attitude about money had changed, with more than 88% admitting a more realistic understanding of the cost of living and over 76% an improved outlook on their financial future.
“I learned a lot of the main things I have right now are a lot more expensive [to afford] by yourself,” admitted Matthew Wepfer, senior at Appleton East High School.
Students commonly reported the high costs of childcare, healthcare and housing being among the most eye-opening discoveries of the program. In some cases, the experience caused them to reconsider their chosen career or how quickly they wanted to start a family. “I definitely appreciate my parents more after this,” said Appleton East senior Abigail Basler following her April 2022 Reality Check experience.

Community Driven

Following months of preparation and cooperation between CFCU staff and Appleton schools, the success of Reality Check comes down to another critical component: the community volunteers. Without the assistance of community and business volunteers who generously offer their time to coach or guide students through financial decisions, the event simply couldn’t happen.
“I loved getting to watch the students really own their financial success and savviness,” she said Kaelyn Ahola, Community Partnerships Coordinator for the Girl Scouts of the Northwestern Great Lakes. “They were having to make really difficult choices about their financial stability and taking it very seriously when they needed to reevaluate their past decisions.”

“Students were surprised at the cost of daycare,” said Lisa Uttecht of Kimberly-Clark Corp., who volunteered Dec. 1 at Appleton West High School. “At first students were choosing the licensed daycare option. But as the day went on, most students chose the non-licensed daycare for the affordability. The students were very receptive, polite and fun to be around.”

Community First is glad to be a partner in youth financial literacy.
“As a community, we all benefit when students are better prepared for their financial independence,” said Amanda Secor, Chief of Staff at CFCU. “As the high school students experience the hands-on simulation, it’s exciting to see them grasp – or at least better understand – the impact of financial decisions they’ll need to make a young adults.”

Join us!

Interested in becoming a Reality Check volunteer? Our next series takes place in April of 2023. Contact our Community Relations team to become part of our mailing list and receive important information about signing up:


Heather Smarzinski
Volunteer and Events Coordinator – Community Relations
920-830-7200 Ext. 5328
P.O. Box 1487
Appleton, WI 54912-1487

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