Balancing act: 'Reality Town' gives daughter a taste of adult life

Published: Monday, Nov. 5 2012 1:00 p.m. MST

Sometimes, reality really does bite when you're a grownup.

So I think it doesn't hurt when our teenagers get a little nibble of that reality every now and then, too.

My oldest daughter had that opportunity last week, when the ninth graders at her school participated in "Reality Town."

Curious about just how "real" the experience was, I decided to ask her a few questions. I was hoping she learned something that would help me build a better reality myself.

She told me that, in the weeks before Reality Town, the students learned about making wise financial choices and managing money. They also listed their top three job choices, which would be whittled down to an actual occupation based on their grades and academic history.

Then, two days before the event, all students received booklets listing their names, occupations, family members, salaries and whether or not their jobs provided health insurance. The booklets also included a check register and provided information about choosing transportation and housing.

"I was a geologist," my daughter said. "My salary was $4,129 a month. I had three kids and a husband who stayed at home, and I did have health insurance."

My oldest always has been interested in being a geologist or an engineer, and I was glad (although not surprised) to hear that her grades thus far would allow her to chase that dream in the world of Reality Town.

I was also glad to hear that her spouse wasn't chosen from among her classmates, but was just an imaginary person. "Otherwise, that would be awkward," she said.

Awkward, indeed.

On the day of Reality Town, students started by going to the bank and receiving their salaries. Then they visited various required booths representing a grocery store, car dealership, real estate representative and insurance agent, among others. Other optional booths offered pets and entertainment.

At each booth, the students slected what they wanted, and the adult volunteers subtracted the appropriate amount of money from their checking accounts.

"At (the grocery store), you would tell what plan you wanted — they had thrifty, moderate and high-price — and each cost a different amount of money," my daughter said. "If you had a coupon, you got a discount on groceries."

She chose the middle range for groceries, and when it came time to choose a vehicle, she selected a Nissan Altima. "I got a new one, because my insurance would be better, and it was the cheapest one that had the required number of seats I had to have for the five people in my family."

For housing, she considered going with the cheapest option — a trailer home — but opted instead to get a condo. "That one was cheap," she said, "and the utilities were paid for in part by the people who owned it."

While she ran out of time and wasn't able to get to all of the booths, she figured she would have had just enough money to support her family for a month.

Her friends were in different situations. The one who was a surgeon bragged about a cruise to the Bahamas she had just purchased. But another friend who was a writer struggled mightily to make ends meet.

(I could have told her that would be the case.)

All of this sounded like it was educational and worthwhile, but what I really wanted to know was what she had learned from the experience. Her first takeaway made me smile.

"Groceries cost a lot," she said. "I didn't realize how much they cost. Besides housing and a car, that was one of the most expensive things I had to pay for. ... Food waste just got a lot more significant to me."

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