‘It’s Reality’: Local high school students learn to manage money

Published 8:00 am Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Keeler goes over Cassopolis High School student Denver Rigsby’s projected budget. (Leader photo/TED YOAKUM)

Keeler goes over Cassopolis High School student Denver Rigsby’s projected budget. (Leader photo/TED YOAKUM)

A busy morning spent filling out spreadsheets and punching out equations on calculators was on the agenda for a number of local high school students Friday.

However, these students were not spending their time working on such tasks confined in math class, but instead inside Southwestern Michigan College’s gymnasium.

More than 200 students from Cass, Berrien and Van Buren county high schools attended the first annual “It’s Reality” event, hosted by the college and the Midwest Energy Cooperative. Volunteers led the students through various activities in order to help prepare them for the fiscal responsibilities that they will face upon entering the job market.

“We want students to walk away with a better idea of financial management,” said Lori Ruff, the event organizer. “We want them to understand the importance of living at or, preferably, below their means.”

Ruff, the community relations specialist with Midwest Energy, has been working to bring the event to southwest Michigan for more than a year, she said. She developed the idea after witnessing a similar event held in the northern portion of the state.

“We’re excited that we were able to partner with SMC on this,” Ruff said. “Midwest always tries to give back to the community and we thought this would be a good way to do so.”

In order to drive home important lessons on spending, the organizers set up a sort of “game of life” for students, who were given a projected starting salary based off the career they want to pursue. From there, they traveled to 17 different stations around the gym, where they had to make important financial decisions, such as what kind of vehicle or home they wanted to purchase.

Ruff said one of her favorites of these stations was the “wheel of reality,” where students had to spin a wheel that had six positive and six negative outcomes listed on it, such as earning additional cash from a sale on eBay or paying to replace a lost cellphone.

“Life can either throw you a curve ball or give you a blessing, sometimes both in the same day,” Ruff said.

At the conclusion of their tour, the students had to lay out a projected monthly balance, balancing their expenses to remain below their expected income.

“Some of the kids commented that it was a real eye opener for them,” Ruff said. “Many of them said they were reevaluating their career choice because it didn’t give them the income they originally expected.”

Volunteers from both the energy company and the college were on hand to man stations and provide assistance to students. A number of SMC faculty members also provided counseling to students, double checking their numbers to make sure they projected a healthy budget.

“People usually learn these kinds of things through trial and error,” said Jay Keeler, a computer science instructor who helped students on Friday.

In addition, a number of local businesses provided assistance to the event, including Fifth Third Bank, the Greater Niles Federal Credit Union and local realtors Brian and Debbie Floor.

Ruff said she would like to see the program return next year, hopefully with an expanded scope and participation, she said.

“The response we got was great from students, teachers and volunteers,” Ruff said. “A lot of our volunteers asked if they could take some spreadsheets home for their own children. That’s a testament to the strength of the program.”