Westervillle South High School senior Steven Lyman was trying to decide between a new minivan or maybe a used sedan.
Should he buy a house, or rent an apartment with his imaginary wife and child on his faux physical therapist salary?
What about clothing costs, or mobile and Internet payment plans? How will he pay off loans and credit debt?
"I tried to go cheap, everything cheap. Don't buy anything expensive," Lyman said, reviewing his budget sheet. "I learned to save money."
With the help of Ohio State University's Extension 4-H Youth program, about 150 business curriculum students attending all three Westerville high schools participated in the "Real Money, Real World" event April 8 at Westerville South High School.
The 4-H Youth Programs help educate children about leadership, citizenship and life skills with interactive lessons. Laryssa Hook, 4-H educator, said "Real Money, Real World" aims to make students aware of family budgets and prepare them to make smart financial decisions.
"Parents don't talk about it. They may say they are having trouble making ends meet, but they don't break it down and talk about expenses and what the budget is for their own family," Hook said.
"I think it is a safe environment to talk about that since we're not talking about their own expenses," she said of the class.
As an elective choice, students at the high schools can take a variety of financial literacy courses, some of which are on personal finance.
For "Real Money, Real World," students applied class lessons at the interactive event by making tough financial decisions. They were asked to imagine that they were 27 years old, and based on randomly assigned careers and income identities, they had to calculate life's expenses on their budget sheets.
Each identity described a very realistic economic background and was different for each student. Some had college degrees, some worked minimum-wage jobs, some had children and some were fortunate enough to have high-paying jobs.
Students walked from booth to booth and spoke with volunteer consultants as they calculated their budget decisions regarding housing, transportation, credit, clothing, communication, child care and entertainment costs, based on their assigned identity background.
Just as life is full of unexpected situations, students also picked up a chance card, similar to the board game Monopoly. Some students received an annual bonus while others had to deal with medical bills for a broken leg.
The goal: Make it through "life," or at least each booth, and have money remaining.
"It is that sort of eye-opening piece, even if we just give them some awareness of what life is going to be and what they have to be prepared for," Hook said. "If you just set them free without any kind of knowledge, they have no sense of how much money and how far it has to go."
Jackie Chivington, education chair for Columbus Mortgage Bankers Association and volunteer coordinator for the event, said though this is a simulation and an interactive lesson, it carries a valuable message.
"It's a dose of reality. It's quite interesting to watch the kids as they move through it," Chivington said.
OSU Extension has expanded the "Real Money, Real World" program to other districts too, including Olentangy schools. However, it is difficult to get teachers and districts interested in the program due to time and money constraints, Chivington said.
Many schools do not offer financial literacy education as a separate class, if at all. Some years, Westerville schools incorporate it within the social studies curriculum. Linda Mapes, who teaches the business classes at South, has had to fight to keep the classes as a separate elective in the school.
Yet, Mapes said, students fill up the classes quickly when they are available and learn crucial life lessons.
"You're not necessarily getting it from your parents and your parents didn't really get it from a class," she said. "Everybody is learning it through the hard knocks and you end up making so many mistakes."
Many times during the event, Westerville students experienced some type of sticker shock associated with certain expenses, particularly childcare and clothing costs.
"I definitely didn't realize how much money clothing really is," said James Marcum, a junior at Westerville South. "I don't usually pay for mine, but it's a lot of money. I have a lot of clothes, and I need to cut back on it."
Marcum made it through the course with some money to spare. He said he needed help along the way, but the course taught him that he should start saving money now.
"A lot of kids will tell me that they understand when their parents said they can't afford something this month. They understand what that means now," Mapes said. "That is such an eye-opener for them."