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'This Isn’t As Easy As I Thought': Teens Learn To Budget For Life After High School

Nina Keck
Lance Hinckley of Mendon and Michael Harrison of Fair Haven, discuss housing options with Marti Kingsley, a volunteer at a recent Financial Reality Fair. The event was held to help prepare 10th grade students for their financial future.

High schools in the state of Vermont received a D grade this week for teaching personal finance. Champlain College's Center for Financial Literacy graded each of the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia and Vermont was one of three states to receive a D along with Montana and Wyoming.

Recently, the Rutland Regional Workforce Investment Board, a nonprofit that links schools with local employers, teamed up with Heritage Family Credit Union to organize a financial reality fair for high school students in Rutland County.

The event was a lot like the old board game Life. You remember that one; where players spin a wheel and try to navigate the challenges of going to college, getting a job, buying a home, and starting a family.

Now imagine 600 tenth graders in a large gymnasium at Castleton University playing an oversized version of that game without the board.

Credit Nina Keck / VPR
Tenth grader Sophia Duffy of Rutland, spun the Wheel of Life at a recent Financial Reality Fair at Castleton University. 600 high school sophomores from all over Rutland County attended the event which was held to help them plan their financial futures.

Volunteer Peggy Lucci’s voice could be heard above the din of the crowd.Go ahead and spin the Wheel of Life, sir, you might have something good happen, you might have something bad happen."

Lucci stood near a big colored wheel and encouraged students to take their turn.

“Oh, so sorry, your brakes just went,” said Lucci.  “You’re going to have to pay $175.”

The dejected looking teen jotted down the $175 payment and moved on to another volunteer who tried to sell him a car. 

The students were participating in the 5th annual Sophomore Summit, organized by the Rutland Regional Workforce Investment Board. Executive Director Nancy Burzon said the idea is to expose students to different jobs and the realities that go with their salaries. “Part of the day is about tell me about your career and what it’s really like in that world; the other part of the day is something we added this year which is the Financial Reality Fair,” said Burzon.

Organizers began preparing in the classroom weeks ago, discussing individual career choices with students. Based on that information, each teen was given a personalized form with a job, a realistic salary, college debt, if applicable, and a random credit score.

Credit Nina Keck / VPR
This man was one of about 90 volunteers who staffed Rutland County's first Financial Reality Fair. The event was organized by the nonprofit Rutland Regional Workforce Investment Board and Heritage Family Credit Union to help local high school students better plan their financial futures.

Randy Smith, an adult volunteer from Rutland, said students then have to take that information and buy what they need within their budget. “So now they’re going to go to all these different booths and hopefully what they’re going to get is all the essentials; so your housing, your furniture, your food."

But, added Smith, there are plenty of volunteers pushing tempting extras like pets, Netflix subscriptions, fitness packages and entertainment.

Sophomore Katelynn Snow looked frustrated. “It’s expensive to live, like really. It’s really expensive just to make a living for yourself. I just got a part-time job and it doesn’t even pay that much. I don’t have a whole lot in my account and I have one of the higher end jobs,” said Snow shaking her head. “I don’t know, but it’s a lot more difficult than I anticipated.”

On paper, 15-year-old Snow is a marine biologist making $81,000 a year, which sounds like a pretty good salary. “Yeah it is,” agreed Snow. “But I only have about $2,000 in my account and it just cost me $400 to get a car. An old car.”

Credit Nina Keck / VPR
Katelynn Snow, a tenth grader at Fair Haven Union High School, spins the Wheel of Life at a recent Financial Reality Fair at Castleton University. Snow admitted figuring out a budget was much more difficult than she expected.

The Fair Haven Union sophomore rolls her eyes but admits this is stuff she needs to know. “Because this is not the type of stuff you get in a school environment,” said Snow. “You get math, you get English, you get science and history, which are important in their own aspects. But they’re not teaching you how to finance a car. Like, I just learned that you need to do that and I don’t know what that means and I’m still trying to figure it out as we go through workshops.”

Snow stepped up to the Wheel of Life and gave it a spin. When it finally stopped turning, Peggy Lucci delivered more bad news to the high schooler. “And unfortunately you were in a hurry to get to work and you just got an $85 speeding ticket, so go right over there and take that off.”

Glenn Wilcox-Hurlbut, another Fair Haven Union student, stood in a nearby line for housing. Working out a budget, he admitted was much harder than he expected. “At first it’s like, 'Oh yeah, I’m going to go out and plan out my life on a piece of paper.' And then I get in here and it’s like, 'Wow, this isn’t as easy as I thought it would be.' There’s 50 different booths and there’s just a lot to actually contemplate and think about.”

Nancy Burzon said getting students this age to realistically think about their future is huge.

“They’re getting ready to make some pretty important choices. In their junior year they’re going to start looking at post secondary education and I think if you ask them now they will all say they want to go to college when they’re done. And a lot of them will not end up doing that,” she said.

According to the Vermont Agency of Education fewer than half of Vermont high school graduates will get a college degree. Burzon said of those who do, many will take on enormous debt. “So we wanted to introduce the cost of education, the cost of what it really takes to live and get them thinking about that as they’re considering what their career choices may be.”

Glenn Wilcox-Hurbut said he wants to become a fire fighter or enter the military.

Working out a budget on his proposed $35,000 salary was challenging, but he said he’s not thinking about changing careers. “I think I’m more reinforced by it than I am torn down, just because I’m really passionate about what I do. I’m on the volunteer fire department in Fair Haven already,” said Wilcox-Hurlbut, “and if fire fighting doesn’t work out in the long run, then I’ll just try the military.”

The last step in the game was a sit down meeting with a financial counselor. Students went over their budgets and learned about things like credit scores, insurance premiums and compound interest.

Credit Nina Keck / VPR
Savannah Diaz, Kathryn Coolidge and Mariah Santelle, classmates at Otter Valley Union High School, pose for a photograph after taking part in a recent Financial Reality Fair a Castleton University. The tenth graders said they learned some important lessons at the fair about how to prioritize spending.

Savannah Diaz, Kathryn Coolidge and Mariah Santelle, students at Otter Valley Union High School, looked relieved when they finally stood up. “I did pretty good,” said Diaz with a tentative smile. “I managed my money well, but I didn’t get clothing or a cell phone.

“Those will come later,” reassured her friend Santelle. “We need to get the important stuff first.”

In other words, spend your money wisely and don’t go crazy with it, the three added, grinning. Lessons just about anyone can learn from. 

One in five Vermonters is considered elderly. But what does being elderly even mean — and what do Vermonters need to know as they age? I’m looking into how aging in Vermont impacts living essentials such as jobs, health care and housing. And also how aging impacts the stuff of life: marriage, loss, dating and sex.
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