Reality Check

Freshmen learn cold, hard truth about adulthood at Reality Store


Most young people really don’t know that there’s more to being an adult than freedom from their parents’ rules and not having to go to school anymore. 

There’s a lot more — like jobs and budgets and mortgages and taxes and child care and insurance and life’s unexpected curveballs. 

That’s where the Reality Store comes in. 

The Etowah Scholarship Foundation sponsored the eighth annual event Feb. 1 at Georgia Highlands College to show more than 1,300 freshmen from Adairsville, Cartersville, Cass and Woodland high schools as well as Excel Christian Academy what life might be like for them when they’re 25 and out on their own. 

“I think it’s that adulting piece that, for freshmen, helps them to think about how the choices that they make over the next four to eight years, depending on whether or not they go to college, will affect the next 45, 50 years of their life,” said Bartow Collaborative Executive Director Doug Belisle, who coordinated the event with Brenda Cooper from Century Bank of Georgia. “So helping them to kind of get a grasp of that, I think, helps them to make better decisions during high school. It’s very practical for the kids, and you can see when the light bulb turns on — ‘Oh, I didn’t realize that costs so much.’ It’s a great teaching experience for them.”

Students were given an occupation, monthly income and family then had to visit 13 stations — bank and taxes, student loans, child care, health and life insurance, transportation, housing, groceries, utilities, clothing, furniture, nonprofit, life’s unexpected events and entertainment — to pay a month’s worth of bills without running out of money. 

If they did blow their budget, they had to visit the out-of-money station to get a second or third or fourth job to make ends meet.

Once they had gone to all the stations, they ended their eye-opening journey at the financial advisers’ table to find out what they did right and what they could’ve done better.

“I think that one thing that students walk away with is an appreciation for what it takes to bring in an income and then budget that income throughout the month,” Belisle said. “Several students mentioned that they were going to go home and thank their parents for their hard work.” 

Cass freshman Morgan Tompkins is one of those who didn’t know the cost of life and who developed a greater appreciation for what her parents do for her.

“I thought it was really fun and useful because I didn’t know how much any of this cost, honestly,” she said. “Honestly, [she was surprised by] the housing and how much food costs because I like to eat. Yeah, I didn’t realize how much it cost my parents.”

In Morgan’s life scenario, she was a nurse practitioner who was married with two kids, and she made $9,000 a month. After paying all her bills, she had $3,000 left.

The 14-year-old said she learned a lot from visiting the Reality Store, and the experience will “definitely” help her plan better for her future. 

Donovan Verhune, also a Cass ninth-grader, said the event was “good,” and he learned “how to be really good on money and everything about my job and all of that and how to support my family.”

In his pretend life, Donovan was a 911 dispatcher who was married with a 2-year-old child. His monthly salary was $3,250, and when all the expenses had been paid, he had $863 left over. 

The freshman said he wasn’t very surprised by the cost of things — “I was making kind of good decisions really” — but the life’s unexpected events station caught him off guard.

“That was the only surprise thing I got, and I only got a flat tire, and that was it,” he said.

Belisle said the event had a “great group” of more than 150 volunteers that either worked all day or half a day.

“I am so thankful that we live in such a caring and giving community,” he said. “We couldn't do it without the support of our incredible volunteers.” 

First-time volunteer Hayleigh Baldwin manned the child care station because her previous experience as a nanny enabled her to help students understand the costs involved in having someone take care of their children. 

“One of them had three kids and saw $900 [a month] and was like, ‘Well, Momma could keep them,’ and I said, ‘No, Momma’s not in the picture,’” she said. 

Baldwin also explained to them that diapers and formula for babies and field trips for the older kids were extra expenses on top of the monthly fees.

“I had one kid already out of money,” she said. “He’s like, ‘I don’t need child care.’ I said, ‘Child care isn’t an option for you. You have to have it.’ They’re like, ‘Oh, boy, this is a lot.’”  

She also said she heard one student say, “Now I see how Momma feels.”

“It’s definitely teaching these kids the value of money,” she said. 

Dr. Terry Faust, a volunteer at GHC who retired from Kennesaw State University in 2017, volunteered for the afternoon shift because he thinks the event is a worthwhile project. 

“I know these kids at this age are trying to begin to figure out what they’re going to do with their lives, where they want to go to college, technical school, whatever they want to do, and this is a great concept to help them to begin to think about life in general,” he said. 

Faust, who was working the student loans station, said much of his higher-education career was spent working in financial aid so he knew how to help students figure out their finances.

“People need to think long and hard at this age about wanting to borrow money when they go to college because you’ve got to pay these loans back,” he said. “And many times, college students don’t think about what happens to you when you get out of college, and you don’t have a job, and you’re living at home, and you’ve got to pay these loans back.”

He also said he was encouraging students to find “free money” like grants and scholarships or to get a job while they’re in college to keep from being in debt when they graduate.

Belisle said he was “very pleased” with this year’s event, the first one he has helped coordinate.

“We tried some new things this year to help streamline the process and make it more efficient for students to participate,” he said.  

And he thinks the new setup created a better flow and helped the freshmen make better use of their time.

“This year, we were able to double our efficiency and get more students through the budgeting process,” he said. “The rotation was better this year, too. We have to make some adjustments for next year, but having students rotate through the stations instead of going in a specific order really helped our efficiency.”