'We teach them to prepare for the future, so they don’t have to repair their past,' VyStar Credit Union's Omega Milton said.
“I need daycare. I don’t have money,” Matthew Macleod exclaimed. “What do I do?”
Macleod was standing in front of the child care table at VyStar Credit Union’s Reality Fair on Dec. 3 at Flagler Palm Coast High School.
Corinne Schaefer, FPC’s Career and Technical Education department head, invited VyStar to conduct the program at the media center for the school's On The Job Training students.
The Reality Fair teaches financial literacy to high school students by thrusting them into real-world situations.
“We teach them to prepare for the future, so they don’t have to repair their past,” said VyStar’s High School Branch Coordinator Omega Milton, who facilitated the fair.
Each student was provided a real-life scenario that included an occupation, a salary, marital status, credit score and the number of children they must provide for – from 0 to 3.
Once they calculated their monthly deductions for taxes and health insurance, they walked around the room, stopping at 11 tables, manned by community volunteers, to balance their budgets.
Each table represented a service – groceries, housing, utilities, child care, charitable contributions, entertainment, transportation, home and car insurance, the mall (clothing, etc.), credit union and “Life Happens.”
Think of the last table as a Chance card in Monopoly. You could receive a bonus from your job or you could have a flat tire or an unexpected medical bill.
Flagler County School Board member Colleen Conklin manned the “Party Alley/Entertainment” table. She said she was told to upsell. So, she sold one student a cruise, who probably couldn’t afford a cruise within his scenario. She expected he would return to cancel the cruise. But most of the students were prudent, she said.
In many cases they took the other extreme, said Brett Winney, VyStar’s Palm Coast branch vice president, who assisted with the fair.
He said some would go to the mall table and say their children didn't need any clothes, or their entertainment budget would include just a cup of coffee.
“It’s funny how many of them talked themselves out of concerts or going to Disney,” Winney said. “But when you ask them what they did last summer, they’ll say, ‘We went to Disney.’”
Perhaps the most eye-opening information the students learned was the high price of child care.
“This is expensive,” Macleod said. “I’m a kindergarten teacher, a single parent with three kids, and I’m renting an apartment. There are a lot of things I have to pay for. For the most part, I have to go with cheaper options.”
But he found a solution for his daycare problem. Cody Fain had an unemployed spouse in his scenario, so Macleod worked out a deal where he would pay Fain’s “wife” to watch his kids.
“This is teaching me about the real world and all the bills you have to pay,” Macleod said. “You have to pay them. You can’t get around it.”
Tamara Walker truly had a real-life scenario. The youngest of three children with a single mother, Walker’s scenario was a single mother with three kids with bad credit.
In real life, Walker has a job and a credit union account and puts away $150 of every paycheck into savings. She has a credit card that her mother co-signed for her, and she pays off her balance every month.
“I do not want to go into debt,” she said. “I watched my mother go into debt and get out of debt. I watch her do everything. My mom taught me a lot. She’s very inspirational.”
Walker took her scenario to the next level. Sure, she can balance her budget now, she said, but what happens when the kids get older and have to deal with “life issues?”
“This is teaching me about the real world and all the bills you have to pay. You have to pay them. You can’t get around it.”
For many, the experience was a reality check. Marcae Smith’s “husband” was unemployed. After buying car insurance, she went back to the insurance booth to cancel it and decided to ride a bike instead.
“You see kids get a little upset, because they’re running out of money,” said Adam Blair, Flagler Schools’ curriculum specialist who is in charge of Career and Technical Education for the district.
In the program’s debriefing period, Milton noted, “Some of you had all the money in the world. Others said, ‘I don’t have enough to feed my children.’ This is real life. Some people live paycheck to paycheck. Everything you experienced is real, and it’s true.”
Student-run branch at Matanzas
Winney said VyStar is just starting up the Reality Fairs again after a pause due to the pandemic. He said this was the 20th fair he was involved in during his nine years with the credit union.
VyStar also has a program in some schools in which students run an actual VyStar branch in-school. As high school branch coordinator, Milton oversees the program in eight counties.
Matanzas High School has the program with 12 students running the branch during lunch periods. It’s a full-service branch exclusively run by the students, where they handle everything except loans. The branch currently has 58 accounts, Milton said.
The 12 Matanzas students get class credits for running the branch. After school and during the summer, the majority of them work at a VyStar branch and get paid, Milton said.
The students also help Milton conduct presentations to Matanzas classes on financial education that include topics such as credit, savings and budgeting, student loans and writing a business plan.
They’ve reached 700 students at the school with those presentations, Milton said.
Milton said she once lived paycheck to paycheck herself. As a result, teaching financial literacy “is a passion for me,” she said.