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Getting real

Students find out how far their earnings will take them through financial reality fair

Ashley Mendez-Miranda has a military career, taking home $3,841.96 a month. Recently, she rented a one-bedroom apartment, bought furniture, financed a Honda Civic, and adopted a canine companion. Her choices, which include cooking at home and opting for a refurbished phone over a new one, would be considered modest by most standards. But when Ashley found she had only $16.69 left at the end of the month, falling short of her savings goals, she decided to scale back.

So, she returned the furniture for something cheaper and took back the dog.

“Would you like a cat or a bird instead, maybe?” asked EJ Fowler, who was handling the pet adoptions.

“No, thanks,” said Ashley.

Fortunately, no actual dog was returned in the making of this scenario because Ashley is a ninth grader at Godwin Heights High School, Fowler is a teller at Adventure Credit Union, which has several locations in the Grand Rapids area, and these events were part of a financial reality fair held for all freshmen at the school this month.

Adulting is Hard

The reality fair was a first for the school and for the credit union, which sponsored and staffed the event with 40 of its employees.

Shanna Schneider, director of branch operations for Adventure Credit Union, gives Ashley Mendez-Miranda options – and their costs – for hair care

Students got a simulated experience that included a budget (complete with educational loan debt) based on their intended career path. They then visited stations to make choices on housing, transportation, furniture, technology, food, and other expenses. Finally, they met with a financial counselor who helped them examine their income and expenses. Well, maybe not so finally: many students had to go back and make different choices to balance their budgets.

“You’re over your budget by about $400,” one student was told.

Another one heard, “Maybe you could find a roommate or live with family to save some money.”

The fair was an eye-opener for the students. Netting more than $4,000 a month as an FBI Profiler, Aremoni Mosley figured she could afford a nice couch and an expensive bed. But it added up quickly and, like Ashley, she had to cut back.

“You just have to be really careful,” said Aremoni. “Some of the bigger things can be expensive, and might not be worth it.”

Amanda Garabedian, chief operating officer for Adventure Credit Union, said, “Financial literacy is so important, and starting young gives kids even more advantage. We actually directed our stations to have more of that selling philosophy. They’re trying to upsell, to represent pushy sales people and peer pressure — things they will actually encounter.”

Students also got to take a “chance” card. Some had good surprises, like work bonuses. Others were slammed with unexpected veterinarian bills. Ashley had to pay $200 for window repairs.

Freshman Ashley Mendez-Miranda shares her anticipated budget

In Real Life

Kelly Ibarra, a counselor at Godwin Heights High School, said community partnerships like the one with Adventure Credit Union are critical for schools in Michigan, which has student to counselor ratios of 744 to one, second only to Arizona.

Ibarra hopes that the reality fair will help inform the paths students choose, as there can be incongruencies between what students want to do, how much education they’d like to attain, and where their aptitudes lie.

“We hope students can see that maybe sometimes initially investing some money into going to school – whether that be trade school, 2-year, or 4-year – in the end pays out because you end up with a higher salary which leads to job retention, more job opportunities, promotions, and ultimately, that lifestyle that they want,” said Ibarra.

Furthermore, she added, this helps connect some of what happens in the classroom with real life skills:

“They want to know, ‘How do I use this every single day?’ If I can make it relevant and give them context and experience in a really interactive way that speaks their language, we might see an increase in academics, in attendance. Those are the kind of measures we’re looking to increase.”

For Ashley, it took a refunded animal purchase and some furniture downgrades, but the message was received.

“You need to be vigilant when you spend your money. You can spend more than you’d think very quickly,” she said. “You need to get the important stuff first. Focus on the essentials. Anything extra can come later. This will help me think more about what  I plan to do.”

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Bridie Bereza
Bridie Bereza
Bridie Bereza hails from Lansing and has worked in the Grand Rapids area as a reporter, freelance writer, and communicator since graduating from Aquinas College in 2003. She feels privileged to cover West Michigan's public schools and hopes to shed a little light on the amazing things happening there through her reporting.

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