Reality Town Teaches Real Life Lessons
Students learn the basics of finance and how much life really costs
At age 28, Abhisek Patel has just become a radiologist. He earns a handsome salary and has the spacious home he always wanted for his two children. As a new doctor and the sole financial provider, however, Patel shakes his head in disbelief at the bite taxes and insurance take from his earnings, so for now he drives a Toyota Corolla to save money. His priorities are excellent childcare and proper clothing for his job.
“Except for the house, I started small,” Patel says. “As you grow, you get more choices and more opportunities open. You can always upgrade.” The big house, he says, was a necessity since the interest he pays is tax-deductible.
What you don’t know is that Patel was actually an eighth-grader at Meece Middle School in Somerset when he made these choices.
Patel was participating in Reality Town this past May, a program aimed at giving adolescents a taste of adult reality so they make better choices while still young, particularly when it comes to education. Designed by the Cooperative Extension Service and held in schools across the state, the program is also called Reality Store, Reality Fair, Reality Check, or Real World.
The concept is simple and powerful.
Students receive basic instruction on finances and life planning in class before going to Reality Town. Once there, they are presumed to be 28 years old and the sole financial provider. They either draw for an occupation or select one based on their grades and educational plans. Students then receive a salary based on the average monthly salary of that occupation.
Before they start spending, however, students draw to see how many children they will have—mimicking the unpredictability of real life. There is also a chance wheel. It can land you big winnings in a lottery or equally big unforeseen expenses, again a mirror of real life.
With their salary and family determined, the students must then go about providing for their family and acquiring any luxuries they want. They must buy or rent a home, find transportation, install utilities, purchase insurance, take care of childcare, and so forth. Each receives a clipboard with a long list of items that must be addressed. Throughout the process, students can seek assistance from the SOS booth (“save our ship” or help) whenever they run into financial trouble.
The program is slightly different in each county. In Cumberland County, for example, they collaborate with numerous agencies such as the Family Resource Center. Also, students choose their career for the day from their individual learning plan. In Louisville, every student receives $2,000 a month. The twist for these students is to learn to distinguish a need from a want.
In Patel’s case, good grades earned him the right to become a physician for the day and to have the impressive salary to go with it. He acquired two children in a drawing. The other choices were his own.
“I chose to be a doctor for Reality Town because I want to be a radiologist,” he says. “I spent a lot of time researching professions last year, and everything has its pluses and minuses. Radiology seems to be a good fit for me,” says Patel.
Unlike many of his peers, Patel has tasted reality before. His parents—Anil and Amisha Patel—own and operate three hotels in Somerset. Abhisek often helps his parents and sees the difficulties life presents as well as the rewards for working hard.
Even so, Patel was in for some surprises.
“The utilities were a big amount,” he says. “It made me think twice about the big house, but I needed that for the taxes.
“The biggest surprise was the amount of money it takes—just what life costs. It is an amazing amount just for taxes and healthcare. Then there is housing, and utilities, and the phone company.”
Phones are one area where the students are typically quite savvy, according to Tina Preece, an energy advisor with Grayson RECC based in Grayson.
“Most of the students opt for a cell phone rather than a landline or both,” she notes. “They understand this aspect well.”
That understanding doesn’t transcend other areas, however.
“I think the program gives kids a valuable chance to understand about making financial decisions,” Preece says. “They are young and have no idea. Like every other American, they want the biggest house they can have until they see the utility bills for that. Some of them rethink it then.
“At our booth, we always quiz them. A lot of times they don’t know what a utility is. If they don’t know, we go through a little education.”
Preece says she and colleague Julie Lewis also show the students ways to lower their energy costs, discussing simple, labor-intensive things that can save them money, such as caulking and weatherstripping.
Occasionally, the program reveals latent aspirations. Preece and Lewis both remember one student in particular.
“One little boy had bought several pieces of property and had to have electricity for each,” Lewis recalls. “He was a doctor and wanted to rent his property. Instead of a car, he opted for a bicycle. That’s not typical in our area, and he could have afforded a car, but he wanted to buy more property, so he could make more money. He had it all planned out in his head.”
Maudie Nickell, secretary with Licking Valley RECC, based in West Liberty, staffs the utilities booth at four to five of these events in different schools each year.
“It makes the kids realize what their parents are up against when they ask for a pair of $200 shoes when that is the same amount as the utility bill,” Nickell says. “It also helps them understand they need to get a good education to get a better job and how much it takes to raise children. Just in the electricity category, for example, we raise the utility bill $20 for each additional person in the household.”
The experience is also one of the first times many adolescents have to work within a budget.
“You see them come back and have the cable cut off or take off HBO,” she observes. “Sometimes they are really proud of themselves and feel like they can do it. Sometimes you’ll hear them say, ‘I’m not having any kids,’ or ‘wow, this is hard.’”
Those realizations are exactly what Elijah Wilson, 4-H development agent for the Cumberland County Cooperative Extension Service in Burkesville, hopes to see.
“The goal of this program is to expose students to the real world,” Wilson says. Reality Store or Reality Town helps students learn that their academic pursuits will impact the decisions they will face as an adult. These decisions, especially those regarding education, will affect such adult decisions as the vehicle they can afford, recreational and entertainment choices, and even family size.
“After they go through the program, the students reflect on the experience. A lot of them realize their educational plan might not cut it. They want a big-screen TV, a cell phone, and a shiny car. The education they get is directly correlated to the job they will be able to get. Many don’t see the correlation until this,” says Wilson.
In addition to the learning, many of the students also find the experience exhilarating.
“I really enjoyed it,” says Mackenzie Townsend. “It was fun.”
Townsend was a licensed practical nurse (LPN) earning $39,000 for the experience. She said she could make it on the money she earned, but couldn’t travel as much as she wanted. She was only able to purchase a weekend vacation to Myrtle Beach at the travel booth.
Back in Somerset, Patel is more confident after completing the program.
“I believe I can do it,” he says of the adult responsibilities he will acquire in a few years. “This gave me a pretty good picture of how life is going to be.”
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: THE TOP 5 WAYS PARENTS CAN HELP
Dr. Robert Flashman, Cooperative Extension Service professor with the UK College of Agriculture, provides tips for how parents can teach kids and teens about finances, spending, and saving money. For his top five tips, go to "kids and money."