Tri-Town News article by Andrew Martins:
Financial independence can be a scary thing for young adults who are beginning to make their own way in life after graduating from high school or college. Unexpected costs arise, debt can become bloated, and temptations to spend frivolously crop up every day.
For a group of freshmen at Jackson Memorial High School, the sobering reality of money and adulthood was put on display during an event dubbed the Financial Reality Fair.
“The goal of the fair is to teach the kids the value of money and how to manage their money when they leave high school,” said Issa Stephan, First Financial Federal Credit Union president and CEO. “It is very crucial these days to be financially savvy, and there is a lot of temptation out there.”
Financial responsibility is a subject that Stephan believes should have a bigger focus in public schools. He cited the economic downturn that began in 2008 as a prime example for why such responsibility is imperative for the future.
“I think that since 2008, people are more conscious about money,” he said.
On Jan. 8, students tackled financial issues in a hands-on manner without potentially destroying their credit rating.
“These days, it is easy to get in trouble,” Stephan said. “Twenty years ago, you had to drive to the mall and take your cash to spend it. Now you can be sitting in your bed, clicking yourself away into financial trouble” on a computer.
The idea for the fair, according to First Financial Marketing Manager Jessica Revoir, was based on similar events held throughout the state by the New Jersey Credit Union League Foundation, which sponsored the Jackson Memorial High School event.
Students were initially instructed to choose a career. After each student selected a job, that career’s starting salary after taxes was used as the baseline for a monthly budget. The young adults were informed that some expenses were required, including food, clothes and rent; and some expenses were not required, including gym memberships and vacations.
Stephan said the point was to illustrate the importance of determining what is needed and what is not needed.
“If you move out [of your parents’ home], you have to pay rent and insurance, but people usually get in trouble with what I call ‘variable expenses,’ ” he said. “A lot of people see a smartphone as a fixed cost … but it is not. There are ways to make even a necessity much more affordable in the long run. If you shield the students from reality, they fall.”
Stephan said students were led astray on purpose as a means of letting them see the difference between what they want and what they need.
At the transportation booth, for example, a binder was purposely left open at a page featuring luxury cars and sports cars for purchase, rather than being left open at a page with less expensive vehicles or public transportation.
“We are trying to teach these kids that if they let themselves be manipulated financially when they get older, they can get into some serious trouble,” First Financial Investment and Retirement Center Coordinator Samantha Schertz said.
To Lisa Scott, who teaches honors economics and financial literacy, the fair provided an opportunity for her students to take a more tactile approach to learning the importance of finances.
“This really is experiential learning for our kids because, to them, the class is just the textbook and something they need to graduate, but then they come here and realize they need this to live and get through adulthood,” Scott said.
The fair was a sobering realization that made freshman Claudia Besse take a moment to consider her future.
“I learned that I am very grateful for my parents, for one,” Claudia said. “I never realized that your gross pay is not your takehome pay and that there are so many expenses. Cars are so expensive.”
Scott said those realizations are fueled not only because of the way that financial education is traditionally handled in school, but also because some parents provide everything for their children.
“What I am hearing as the kids go through the fair is they ask, ‘Does that cost that?’ A lot of kids don’t have to pay for the things they enjoy right now … so for some kids, this is a revelation,” Scott said.
Stephan said he and his staff hope the students will take what they learned at the event and apply it to their lives.
“I saw some kids calculating and trying to make smart decisions, and I saw others just not caring as much. And that, in a way, reflects society,” he said. “We need to try to catch people before they get into financial trouble.”
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