Financial Reality Fair Prepares Students for Real Life

A Shelton High School student had a tough task: live on take-home pay of $675 a month. That’s not enough money to pay rent, buy food, clothing and support the transportation that will get him to his dream job as a concert pianist.

Will Alex Deacon give up on his dream? Not a chance. But thanks to last Thursday’s Financial Reality Fair, a live, interactive budgeting exercise held in Olympia, Wash., as part of the Northwest Credit Union Association’s (NWCUA) Credit Union Day at the Capitol, Alex knows that when he starts out, he will likely have to stay in his parents’ home, or get several roommates—and a second job.

Alex was among approximately 50 students who participated in the Financial Reality Fair, which was made possible in part by a grant from the Northwest Credit Union Foundation (NWCUF). The students selected a career and researched their starting salaries, then visited credit union volunteers posing as merchants selling necessities and optional luxuries. The savvy volunteers—many of them seasoned at financial education—put the “hard sell” on the students, often too easily talking them into expensive electronics, travel and new cars.

“I bought a cat, a dog and a tattoo just because the salesman was so nice,” a South Kitsap High School student was overheard telling his classmates.

Malyssa Sisson hopes to become a nurse midwife after her education is complete. The Shelton High student was pleased to find out she’ll be able to live on her starting salary.

Some of the students selected lucrative professions but were surprised to learn they will likely begin their professional lives in debt.

“Student loans suck!” volunteered Anthony Ehnerd, who attended the fair as an attorney.

The South Kitsap group also learned a real-life lesson about student loans from a state legislator who attended the Reality Fair. Steve Bergquist, who represents Washington’s District 11, told the students that his wife is about to become a doctor, but that they are spending $1,200 a month to repay her education loans. Bergquist actually participated in the Reality Fair exercise, assuming the persona of a zoologist who found out he’d need a roommate to make ends meet on his entry-level salary.

Elliot Gregg, president and CEO of Kitsap Credit Union, was also a participant who had a memorable moment when his “landlord” told him he could not afford the apartment he wanted. The landlord was volunteer Cathy Brorson, who in her “day job” works at Kitsap Credit Union. The enterprising Gregg quickly found a roommate for a one-bedroom apartment.

“I’ll sleep on the couch,” he quipped.

“What a pleasure it was to watch the students come through the Reality Fair,” said Steve Wilder, chairman of the NWCUF’s board of directors. “The collaboration between the Association’s Financial Education Committee and the Foundation grant helped to build the program, and the many credit union volunteers who came together helped to make it truly successful.”

 “The energy around our first Reality Fair was contagious,” said Kasey Rockwell, director of outreach programs for the NWCUA. “It was great to watch the students—and some adults—work their way through the fair and realize how much things cost and how quickly their paycheck disappears.”

The experience was equally rewarding for volunteers.

“Great students, fabulous volunteers and a wonderful program overall,” said Woodstone Credit Union’s Gina Duckett.

North Coast Credit Union’s Angie Strunk was equally pleased.

“This was one of the most fulfilling experiences I’ve had in my career,” she said. “The seeds we plant now for our future leaders can only grow with our continued efforts and passion. People helping people is more than a motto; it’s a lifestyle and our standard.”

The NWCUA’s Curtis Sorensen provided design support for the supplies and branded material, then attended the fair to see the end result. Sorensen is not far removed from the world of the students who attended, as he is just 18 months into his professional career.

“I really wish I would have had something like this when I was in high school,” Sorensen said. “I am learning my own financial reality lessons right now. Seeing the big picture in the Reality Fair is really beneficial.”

Three classes of Oregon high school students will participate in a Reality Fair on March 13 in Salem during Credit Union Day at the Capitol. Volunteer registration is still open online.


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Posted in Advocacy News, Events, NWCUA.