Many Bartow County freshmen learned a sobering and valuable lesson last week — adult life is hard when you don’t make the right decisions.
About 1,000 ninth-graders from Adairsville, Cartersville, Cass and Woodland high schools — as well as all different grades from Excel Christian and Grace academies — participated in the Etowah Scholarship Foundation’s seventh annual Reality Store Friday at the Georgia Highlands College gym on the Cartersville campus to learn all about the cost of housing, utilities, child care, student loans, unexpected events and other adult financial responsibilities.
“I hope they learn that their choices matter,” said event Coordinator Brenda Cooper, branch manager of Century Bank of Georgia in Cartersville. “If you buy a big house, you may not be able to afford something else. Kids are expensive. I want them to see the big picture. We want to help our future workforce understand how their future will be affected by their choices today.”
Before the students left their schools, they were randomly given life situations of a 25-year-old — jobs, incomes, married or single, kids or no kids — and had to pay their bills for a month, Cooper said.
“So we had some married, both working with two kids, and we have some single parents with one to three kids,” she said. “We tried to put in a lot of different options.”
When they arrive at the Reality Store, they visit each of 13 stations in order of importance: bank and taxes, student loans, child care, health and life insurance, transportation, housing, groceries, utilities, clothing, furniture, nonprofit, life’s unexpected events and entertainment.
Volunteers help them review their choices in getting a place to live and a car to drive, setting up child care for their children, signing up for health insurance, buying groceries and making other decisions they will have to make on a monthly basis.
“[And] if they run out of money, they go to the out-of-money station, where they have to get another job,” Cooper said.
Their final stop was the financial advisers table to get advice and guidance for the future.
Third-year volunteer Jon Hinds from LakePoint Sporting Community and Town Center manned the first station, bank and taxes, where students lost a big chunk of their money before they ever started paying their bills.
The ones with hefty paychecks didn’t seem to be impacted much by the amount of taxes they had to pay, but those who didn’t earn as much money realized “once taxes, savings [come out], it quickly goes away,” he said.
“I remember when I did something similar when I was a kid, and it totally changed my view on child care and everything, like how expensive, so to me, it’s important that kids see it now, how much it costs,” he said. “Especially when you get to unexpected life events or something, [and] when you have a plan, there goes the plan. What I did in high school was good so it’s kind of pay it forward.”
Hinds called the event “a good exercise, for sure.”
“I think as long as they take it serious, then they’ll get something out of it,” he said.
Katie Jones from Coosa Valley Credit Union was volunteering for the first time to help students deal with life’s unexpected surprises.
“There’s a mixture of good and bad events,” she said, noting she loves helping people with their needs. “They keep going. They’ve been positive.”
Most kids were “shocked” when they got to her station because they thought they were doing OK then “something hits them out of the blue,” Jones said.
“Their face — you can see it all over their face,” she said. “The funniest one’s been the puppies, dogs that they didn’t realize that they’ve had, and then they’re like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to pay for this.’”
Among the unexpected events were a $90 trip to the vet, winning a scratch-off or receiving $100 — $200 if married — for Christmas, Jones said.
“That’s probably one of the better ones,” she said. “One of the worst ones a lot of people got is glasses, $300. They had to pay $300 for glasses. So it’s a variety.”
Jones said she thinks the Reality Store is “good” for students.
“I wish we had more of it when we were younger because you don’t think of these things,” she said. “You think you’ve got a lot of money, and then you think about what you’ve got to pay for.”
LaDonna Jordan, also with LakePoint, said most students “surprisingly this year” weren’t out of money yet when they reached her stations, unexpected events and entertainment.
“In years past, they’re usually out of money or have two or three jobs by the time they get to me, but this year, it seems like they’re planning a little better as they’re going through the other stations, and they’re not just going wild,” she said, noting she was covering two stations due to a shortage of volunteers. “Some of them are really thinking about the process.”
Jordan, who has volunteered for several years, said the Reality Store is “one of my favorite events.”
“I just love seeing the kids’ reaction to reality and what these things actually cost,” she said.
Dr. Joell Hathaway of Country Chiropractor saw a lot of down-and-out students who were out of money.
“When they come here, they’re out of money, and then I question what their choices were, why did they think they were out of money,” she said. “Then we have to find a second, third, fourth job. I?had one girl, she was on her fourth job.”
Some of the broke kids were upset because their spouse was unemployed, Hathaway said.
“They have kids, and I let them know if that spouse wasn’t home, they would have to be paying even more money out of pocket,” she said. “I?tell them [child care] is about $700 a week, depending on the kids. And then I go monthly, ‘this is how much it is,’ and they start realizing it’s not so bad to have a spouse at home.”
Cass High freshman Emily Surcey said she “actually did really well” paying her bills for a month.
“I ended up with more than I thought I would, and I made good decisions,” she said. “I got lucky a few times.”
The 14-year-old said she was surprised by the cost of cellphone plans and health insurance, but most of the costs didn’t catch her off guard.
“My parents have taught me a lot of this stuff,” she said.
Emily added she thought the event was a “really valuable experience for kids my age because they know what to expect when they get to be the age where they can make these decisions.”
Wesley Alred from Woodland High School said he was surprised by the costs of utilities and car payments.
“You have to not waste your money if you’re going survive,” he said. “You have to budget yourself or you will not have any money left over at the end of the month.”
Wesley, 14, was a registered nurse whose net income was $4,429 a month, and he had $575 left after paying all his bills.
Tristan Hunt, also from Woodland, landed one of the better careers — airplane pilot, which pulled in a gross income of more than $9,000 a month.
“I did pretty good, $5,261 left with $600 in the bank,” he said. “I was surprised at the amount that groceries cost and the insurance and the housing.”
Tristan, 16, said the Reality Store was a “good experiment.”
“It teaches you about how life goes and the ups and downs through your relationship,” he said. “It was pretty good to me.”
Fourteen-year-old Jada Dawson had gone through the first two stations and was “a little bit” surprised by the amount of taxes that came out of her paycheck.
“It was like, awwww,” said the WHS freshman, a singer who had $4,930 left every month after taxes.
Cooper said this year’s event was a “little rougher than most due to the flu.”
“But with the help of our wonderful volunteers, we were able to let people move from station to station as needed,” she said.
She also was grateful that so many students were able to attend.
“We have been so excited to have all the schools from Bartow County come to our event,” she said. “We really feel this helps our kids know what to expect from the future.”
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