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Student budgeting gets real

Eighth grader Erin Clark, right, purchases a month’s worth of groceries at a booth run by Northwestern High School students Jessi Klejeski, left, and Jordan Olsen during last week’s Reality Store event at Northwestern Middle School. The event gives students a hands-on financial education. Maria Lockwood

Jordan Herman spent Wednesday morning stretching his $36,430 annual chef's salary to meet the needs of a young family.

"It sounds like a lot, but you know with all the taxes and everything, it boils down to $3,174.50 a month," said the Northwestern Middle School eighth grader. "I took out another job. I kind of needed it."

Less than five minutes after he walked into the annual Reality Store event, Herman was handed a $264 ticket for a hit and run.

"And that raised my auto insurance up to $125," he said. He had to budget for renters and life insurance, a $328 car payment, two tickets for theft, furnace maintenance and a $930 monthly grocery bill.

"Feeding five kids and a wife and myself is not cheap," Herman said.

One thing he decided to live without was the information superhighway.

"My kids don't need the internet," Herman said. "It's free wi-fi at school."

It all added up to a dose of reality.

"I feel like I got everything, but I'm really stressed out," said the middle-schooler. "I feel like I need to take a vacation."

Eighth grade students from Northwestern, Washburn and Bayfield got hands-on financial education during the annual Reality Store event. After being randomly assigned a job, salary and family, each had to build a monthly budget that included all the basics, like their parents do at home.

"It gives me a better appreciation for them," said Nick Meyer, another Northwestern eighth grader.

As a dietician making $60,000 a year, he approached every mandatory purchase — from groceries and heat to a car and home — with the same line.

"Which one's cheaper?" Meyer asked.

His money-saving strategy paid off.

"I made it out of there with $49 left and I got a lot of good stuff, too," Meyer said, including TVs and a $2,000 donation to charity.

Even when his kid broke a leg, the $360 got covered.

"You've just got to budget your spending and try to make ends meet," Meyer said.

His classmate Erin Clark, a special education teacher with no children, focused on priorities first and chose lower-cost options.

Fate dealt her $162 in losses — a trip to a waterpark and a cleaning bill — but she gained $50 for not having cavities. Thanks to her budgeting, Clark was able to buy a dog and take a trip to Niagara Falls.

"Right now, we don't have to deal with all this money because we have our parents to do that, but we're graduating from high school in like five years so we need to try to learn how to do some of this stuff," Clark said. "I don't think a lot of us have dealt with this kind of money thing. So we need to learn to how to use it and how to use it wisely and prioritize stuff."

The annual event is an eye-opener, said Maple School District Superintendent Sara Croney.

"What I love is, first of all, the excitement of the kids until the reality hits them," she said. "The other thing I appreciate is how many of our businesses come out and help us. I know they're taking time out of their day. That is a gift to our students, and Bayfield students and Washburn students."

Employees from local businesses and Northwestern High School students manned the different booths, offering everything from day care to hunting licenses.

"It's really kind of cool here because they get the prices for all these things, automobiles and houses and insurance, and whatnot, and then all of a sudden the light bulb goes on for some of them, like 'Wow, I need to go to college to get a degree so I can earn more money to afford this stuff,'" said Matt Crowell, vice president of Chippewa Valley Bank. "It's just kind of fun."

Eighth grader Cody Van Camp, a carpenter with a wife and two kids, said the Reality Store was an equal mix of fun and frustration.

"It's kind of to prepare us for life, for taxes and billing and expenses and all that, and then it can also maybe help us choose a career that we want," he said. "So essentially, it's just to prepare us for life."

It was an eye-opener for some of the high school helpers, too.

"I'm going to go off into the world pretty much to do the exact same thing because I'm a senior going to school in the fall, moving out of my house," said Jenica Keup, a Northwestern High School senior. "To see all the different prices on the billboards, it made me realize 'Oh my gosh, this is reality.'"

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